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Blu-ray 3-D Review: “The Mask” (1961)

Mask 1

The Mask (1961), reportedly Canada’s first horror movie (and first 3-D feature, and first feature distributed by a major studio), is a real oddity, professionally-made and reasonably polished for a relatively low-budget movie, but otherwise quite different in look and tone from Hollywood product. Rather like the made-in-Pennsylvania The Blob (1958) and 4-D Man (1959), it’s ambitious and a bit more intelligent than most exploitation films of its era.

And it’s certainly different in one respect: nearly 15 minutes of its 83-minute running time are in 3-D. The 1952-1955 craze for 3-D was pretty much kaput by 1961; distributed by Warner Bros., it and the now totally obscure September Storm (1960), from 20th Century-Fox, were the only major 3-D features released between 1955 and 1966.

One of the nagging myths about classic 3-D movies, completely untrue, was those red-blue glasses moviegoers supposedly had to wear, and the inferior, headache-inducing image they created. In fact nearly all ‘50s 3-D movies employed “polarized” viewers resembling sunglasses. The Mask was a rare exception; originally, for its 3-D sequences, “Magic Mystic Masks,” i.e. red-blue anaglyphic lenses in cardboard frames, created the effect. Unlike nearly all ‘50s 3-D features, which required two separate but synchronized 35mm prints (one for the left eye, one for the right), The Mask could be exhibited in any theater as it used a single print, a major convenience.

Ingeniously though, the folks at 3-D Film Archive, which has done more for classic 3-D on video than all the major labels combined, have gone back to the original left and right 35mm elements to enable picture perfect Blu-ray 3-D. Instead of the slightly blurred red-blue image theatrical audiences saw back in 1961 (and on multiple reissues thereafter), viewers can now enjoy the film’s surreal 3-D scenes in razor sharp, perfectly aligned black-and-white 3-D.

Further, they’ve restored the rarely heard Electro-Magic (surround) sound, remixed for 5.1 surround,  enhancing the immersive experience even more.

Mask 3

The plot of The Mask is almost incidental, but moderately effective on its own terms. A deeply troubled patient (Martin Lavut) of psychiatrist Dr. Allen Barnes (Paul Stevens) commits suicide, but not before mailing the skeptical shrink an ancient tribal mask at the root of the patient’s psychosis. Inexorably compelled to “put the mask on NOW” (so booms Barnes’s unrecognizable off-screen voice, cueing moviegoers to do likewise), Barnes experiences wildly surreal, proto-psychedelic visions. These 3-D “dream sequences” were supervised by Slavoljub “Slavko” Vorkapić, a Serbian experimental filmmaker who in Hollywood created dynamic montage sequences, usually without credit, for such films as San Francisco (1936), The Good Earth (1937), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), Meet John Doe (1941) while directing short films of his own. The sequences, while tame by today’s standards, would be extraordinarily silly were they not also so hypnotically effective.

The director of credit was Montréal-born Julian Roffman, who had a minor career as a producer-director. Several of his later films in that former capacity, The Pyx (1973) and The Glove (1979), are available on DVD. Those movies are unusual, too, but generally unmemorable. Beetle browed character actor Stevens is the only actor in the cast viewers are likely to recognize. Prolific but mainly on television, Stevens did have memorable roles in a handful of other pictures, notably Exodus (1960), Patton (1970), and the mostly poor Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973). He died in 1986.

The Mask was picked up by Warner Bros. soon after its Canadian premiere and did well enough that New Line Cinema reissued it several times beginning in 1970, sometimes under the title Eyes of Hell. Because it had been intended from the start to be exhibited in anaglyphic format, it didn’t look too terrible when it was broadcast on commercial television in the early 1980s, during the second big wave of 3-D productions and reissues. A subsequent VHS (and, I think, laserdisc) release of The Mask also looked about as good as 3-D could get in those formats. Certainly it was infinitely superior to atrocious 3-D VHS versions of Creature from the Black Lagoon and most other releases of the period.

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Nonetheless, the 3-D Film Archive’s 3-D Blu-ray, distributed by Kino, is a revelation. It quite literally far surpasses even the film’s original 1961 bookings by way of its 3-D Blu-ray conversion and looks and sounds great throughout. Though only about one-fifth of the film is in 3-D, the entire show (in 1.66:1 widescreen) has been encoded that way, allowing the viewer to switch back-and-forth between the 2-D “plot” scenes without glasses and the dream sequences with 3-D viewers –  without the fuss of needing to constantly adjust one’s monitor.

As an option, the 3-D sequences are also presented in their original anaglyphic format (red-blue 3-D glasses not included), supplemented by useful anaglyphic calibration guide.

Also included is an excellent audio commentary with film historian Jason Pichonsky; “Julian Roffman: The Man Behind the Mask,” a very fine 20-minute featurette; four trailers and TV spots; and, best of all, several illustrative (if 2-D) short films by Vorkapić. As a bonus there’s a seven-minute short film by James Hall and Jason Jameson, also in Blu-ray 3-D, One Night in Hell (2014), presented with Dolby ATMOS audio and featuring music by Brian May. Aesthetically it doesn’t quite fit in with the rest of the presentation, but on its own terms it’s a really fantastic little short.

Once again Bob Furmanek and Greg Kintz (among others associated with 3-D Film Archive) have hit it out of the park. Though not a great film by any means, The Mask offers many startlingly good 3-D effects and it’s a rather fascinating, unique film in several respects. Keep ‘em coming, guys!

Bronson Gate

The Seven Sisters: Movie Studios and Their Backlots

It was never about the movies.

Few people realize this but the movies themselves are only the end result, a byproduct of the factories which created them.  It sounds downright sacrilegious, considering the vast emotional weight we place on our cinematic entertainments but trust me, the most momentous and important thing Hollywood has given the world isn’t a movie at all, any movie, but rather Hollywood itself. That is, Hollywood’s movie studios and our ideas about them.

It’s true, behind the tall walls at Hollywood’s seven studios have been created no less than our very ideas of what we are, where we live and what makes up our world.  And none of this has been accomplished by the movies at all, but rather by the studios, the physical factories which birthed these movies.  Most of our ideas about sociology, history, architecture, and geography were created inside these gates. The movies created there were the only the medium through which these messages were delivered.

MGM

“When I was a kid I took a trip to Los Angeles with my parents and at the time MGM was offering, for a little while, a tour of their studio,” remembers writer Stephen X. Sylvester. “I spent an afternoon there and it changed my life. We went to Disneyland the next day and I was so disappointed. Compared to MGM, Disneyland felt like pale Xerox of a movie studio. Real life felt like a pale Xerox of as movie studio. It still does.”

If one was to place a push-pin in the intersection of Hollywood and Vine on a map of Los Angeles – and then to place additional pins at the historic (if not always original) sites of the seven major film studios, the “Seven Sisters” as they are still referred to, that compose the industry, a jagged triangle would be formed. Furthest afield would be MGM, which was nine miles through dicey LA traffic from Hollywood Blvd. Twentieth Century-Fox would make up the other side of this triangle at seven and a half miles. Warner Bros., to the north, is just over four miles away. Universal, at the base of the Cahuenga Pass, just over three. Paramount and RKO  lie to the south a mile and a half away. Columbia, slightly west at only half a mile from ground zero would complete the physical picture. (Disney, the last sister, rose to prominence as a major as RKO waned)

A visitor to either modern day or historic Hollywood however, would have a hard time doing more that staring through the fences at these studios. True, several of the majors offer, or have offered, public tours of their lots, and one studio, Universal, even has its own amusement park. But Hollywood’s studios have always been closed-off cities with their own rules and folklore.

Movie studio backlots are the sections of a studio which distinguish that studio from any other factory, industrial site or manufacturing center. In the history of the world there has never been another business where entire secret cities have regularly needed to be manufactured and then never used as what they appear to portray. If you want any business tips then visit to Cofe Winchester blogs. Also, click here for best information related to the business. Sets on a studio backlot may need to look like Shanghai at midnight or Dodge City at high noon, but only in the most superficial way possible.  A backlot version of the Grand Hotel need only look like the Grand Hotel – or like an audience’s idea of what the Grand Hotel needs to look like. And in fact, for most of us, that which makes us think we are familiar with the Grand Hotel is probably born not from reality – but from watching films set – but not filmed, at the Grand Hotel.

Sadly, in modern Hollywood a studios’ signature architecture is becoming an endangered species.  Like Route 66, which once spider-webbed across the nation and now survives only in our imagination and in fit and starts, backlots still exist at all the studios, if you look for them, but only in pieces. Even in an a era of computer created virtual backlots modern studios have discovered that it is indeed practical to keep limited standing sets on their properties and, if you have a friend, who can get you a pass to visit, take a public tour, or if you can climb a fence, you can still visit them. The experience is well worthwhile, both alien and achingly familiar. Time does not stand still on a backlot, only in the films and memories which they produce. But if your mood and the sunlight through the smog and the time of day are right while you are there, a modern backlot can feel just like it must have felt in the past.  Just like it can feel in the movies.

Before its too late then, let’s pick up that map of Hollywood again and visit Hollywood’s’ mythical, mysterious studios, not as they were in the movies, but as they physically exist today. And as they once were…

In some ways MGM built the ultimate, prototypical, backlot. Producer Thomas Ince, credited with being the inventor of the modern, factory-styled movie studio – and movie studio backlot – opened the property in Culver City in 1915 in partnership with fellow pioneers D.W. Griffith and Mack Sennett. Corporate wrangling resulted in the lot eventually being acquired by Samuel Goldwyn, and after a 1924 merger, by the newly created MGM. Exterior sets were constructed at the western or “back” part of the studio property as needed.  Someone, probably plant manager J.J. Cohn, started recycling these sets for later pictures when it was discovered that a sign or a title card or another angle could turn a street created to look like one location into something entirely different.  The era of the backlot was born.

MGM’s backlots were divided into 3 properties.  The first and oldest was the real estate on the edge of the original studio property, aka; “Lot One.” Lot One’s backlot was distinguished by a man-made lake which was used regularly into the 1940’s. But many of the surrounding sets were gradually moved across the street to the 40-acre “Lot Two.” Lot Two eventually contained a variety of European and Asian districts, the industry’s largest (7-acre) “New York” Street, and a working railroad with three depots of progressively larger and more modern vintage and culminating in a vast Grand Central Station replica.  The “Small Town” or “Andy Hardy Street” was perhaps the busiest of all backlot sets at all studios, owing to MGM’s many pictures extolling the virtues of rural communities, which it copied, and which copied it, and which still existed all across the United States at the time.

Up the road a few blocks was the even larger (65-acre) “Lot Three” which itself was surrounded by the smaller satellite lots “Four,” Five,” “Six,” and even “Seven.”  Lot Three contained fewer sets than Lot Two, but they were generally larger than those at any other studio. A man-made tropical jungle and lake was infested with real animals and marine life, which apparently couldn’t tell the difference. A tree-line road was so generic that it was used by virtually every film of every historic period that the studio produced.  Most studios could boast of a Western street somewhere on their backlot, but MGM had 3 separate frontier era districts, even though the parent company produced comparatively few Westerns. Adjacent was the famous “St. Louis Street” which most production designers agreed was the ultimate masterpiece of all studio backlots.  The eight houses constructed there by Cedric Gibbons, Lemuel Ayers, and John Martin Smith charmed everyone who visited the location or saw any movie which utilized it. To see this set, everyone agreed, was to experience a feeling of longing for a past which no one alive today, or even in 1944 when it was constructed and when the world was at war, ever really experienced firsthand.  The nostalgic, heightened reality these homes embodied and represented could not have been created, or experienced anywhere but on a backlot.  The set was planned, designed and created to be better than real life.

Universal 1947

Universal Studios in 1947.

Across town and on the other side of our map, Universal Studios held a very early backlot.  Founder Carl Laemmle purchased the land which would become the largest movie studio on earth in 1914 for $3,500.  He took satisfaction in knowing that real history had taken place near his new property in 1846 when Mexico officially ceded the territory of California to the United States right across the street from his office. The grand opening party (Universal’s, not California’s) was held on March 15, 1915.

Universal, despite its size, (various acquisitions and mergers eventually bloated the lot to 415 acres) has the disadvantage of being built on the side of a hill. It is the only Hollywood studio where golf carts have to be gas-powered in order to make it up the steeper grades. Therefore, the backlot has been limited over the decades in size and shape by the natural terrain. Various sets, particularly residential streets, have been built or moved onto the hillsides, but areas representing cities have historically had to be constructed along a flat, narrow band of real estate between the bottom of the hill to the south and the Los AngelesRiver on the north. Lankershim Blvd. on the west and Barham Blvd. to the east provide man-made borders on the other two sides.

The front lot was constructed along Lankershim and consists of 31 soundstages, post-production and technical facilities.  Walking east onto the backlot from there today an explorer immediately finds oneself in a wonderful reconstruction of New York City, which oddly has mountains on one side and a nearly dry, paved river bed on the other. Unfortunately, most of today’s “New York Street” is of a comparatively recent vintage. The original street was lost in an arson fire set by a disgruntled security guard in 1990 (some of which itself burned again in 2008) and what the cameras (and guests on the company’s “studio tours”) actually see is a copy which mimics and in some cases surpasses the original sets.

All of this, of course, begs what eventually must be asked when thinking about backlots.  At which point does a backlot set, always in a constant state of flux, stop being the original structure and become a copy or a new building with an entirely new identity?

While we ponder this question on our tour, this pseudo-historic New York evolves into a small town street with courthouse.  A residential street, apparently designed as part of this same set, was removed in 1981 so that production offices could be constructed.  Some of the houses from this street, familiar from American television series like The Munsters, Leave It to Beaver and Bachelor Father were moved up onto the hillside, where they remain, in truncated form to this day. Part of a castle once stood nearby.

A “Mexican Village” complete with cobblestone streets, corral, and bridge lead, appropriately, into the studio’s (and Hollywood’s) last surviving Western set.  Universal publicists claim that their “6 Points Texas” Western street is the oldest working spot on their backlot and the most filmed spot on the planet, although most of the current structures are actually of relatively recent vintage. But a walk down this weathered, grey strip, and the nearby “Denver Street” with its wooden sidewalks and dirty storefronts, leaves one feeling that this is indeed the real thing: an “actual” Hollywood  location, not a recreation for tourists or a dude ranch pastiche.  And the affection this area inspires is not for the actual Old West, but for Hollywood’s impression of that West, and for the Western itself. So a glance up at the company’s “Black Tower” office complex, which looms over the slat-board facades and casts its shadow over her ersatz frontier streets somehow is not as incongruous as it should be.

Let’s move on. A lake and a smaller pond fronts a New England fishing village.

Farther over are the remnants of a European Street alleged to go back to 1919, although most of the extant streets and structures actually date to All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) and, let’s be honest: nearly all of them are certainly much more recent than that.

The pseudo-Gladiator “Spartacus Square” stands on the extreme east side of the studio’s lower lot. Walking behind this impressive edifice, where the trams full of Hollywood’s happy tourists can’t go, the tired traveler sees not a Roman Senate in progress but crushed cola cans and dirty paper plates left behind by some long-ago craft service staffer.  Yards away, traffic can be heard buzzing by on Barham Boulevard behind the razor wire fence.

Across the street from Universal, and running parallel to the Hollywood Hills is the massive (one often hears the word “sprawling” used) 110-acre complex still occupied by Warner Bros. Warners looks today, at the sunrise of the 21st century, more like a traditional movie studio than any of the other majors, even Universal, where studio construction seems to be dictated by what a tourist expects to see while in Hollywood.  In fact, at Warner Bros., it almost seems as if the studio was built after the clichés were created only in order to live up to them   In any case, the wide streets and orderly rows of soundstages which greet a modern visitor constitute virtually the same view which Humphrey Bogart would have seen when he first drove onto the lot in 1932.

The Warner Bros. lot.

The Warner Bros. lot.

WB 1931

The auto gate on Olive Blvd. (or “Gate 2”) has been used, for decades, as the quintessential movie studio entrance in pictures.  Less ornate, and therefore less identifiable with a specific lot than Paramount’s regal Marathon Ave. entrance, it has shown up both in the studio’s own product - A Star is Born (1954), It’s a Great Feeling (1949), Blazing Saddles (1974) – and rented out as a set to other companies: Universal’s Bowfinger (1999), Disney’s Ed Wood (1994), Columbia’s The Way We Were (1973), etc.  One can cross all the way onto the backlot from this single main artery.

By the late 1940s, this backlot, although comparatively small when measured alongside to the kingdoms at Fox and MGM, must have been astonishing in its variety and scope.  A visitor in, let’s say, 1946, could wander down “Brownstone Street” onto the six blocks of New York Burroughs and find hidden behind the that set’s eastern wall the formidable Stage 21, at one time the world’s largest soundstage, where inside floated two complete ships, each 130 feet long! A railroad shed, with two locomotives, exterior track and a working indoor station sat behind it. Farther along, “Bonneyfeather Street,” a European coastal area would twist would and spiral through a tangle of alleys and morph into a big city “Tenement Street,”complete with fire escapes, streetlights, parking meters, neon signage, and machine gun pockmarks on many of the walls left over from the studio’s gangster dramas.

“Dijon Street,” a mid-eastern/Arabic community, was built in 1930 for a long-lost early version of Kismet and part of this street can be seen as Casablanca in 1943.  “English  Street” runs south for two blocks and terminates at a warehouse/landing strip which stores a small fleet of prop airplanes. On the other side of this hanger can be found a “Viennese Street,” which would be rebuilt into “Madison Avenue” in 1949 for Life with Father and some of which survives today as “French Street.”  An early version of the studio’s current “Midwestern” or “Midvale Street” with residential section, curls behind this thoroughfare and to the east.

Behind this is a “Norwegian  Street” which, with a disarming sense of logic, eventually becomes “Canadian  Street,” a sort of Western town, only with snow. (Oddly the studio would not have a permanent “Western Street” on lot until 1956).  The backlot then curls west and back into itself with a rather upscale “Philadelphia Street” before terminating into what was then Soundstage 20 (and which today is the Media Archive Building).  Taking this 1946 trek would surely leave any exhausted visitor wondering what continent, what world, he was in.

In addition to the mazes and cul-de-sacs of standing sets found on the main lot, Warner, like most of the other studios, kept a ranch facility.  Theirs was a 2500-acre tract in Calabasas.

Columbia 1940

Columbia Studios, 1940.

Columbia Pictures represented the outstanding rags to riches success story among the majors.  The company started out among the most miserly and penny-pinching of the low-rent studios which clustered up, and then withered away and died, in the poverty row district of Hollywood along Sunset and Gower Streets.  Columbia’s early product was indistinguishable from the films being ground out by any her neighbors in this district.  But she did have something all of her fellow unfortunates lacked.  And that was Harry Cohn. Cohn was regarded by his peers with awe, derision, envy, admiration, hatred—just about anything you might want to say about the man, good or bad would probably be accurate.  His penny-pinching ways were much remarked upon in Hollywood, yet in the depths of the Great Depression, Cohn was the only mogul who refused to back an industry-wide measure which would have halved the salaries of anyone making less than $50 a week. Fortunately for his well-maintained reputation, this act of kindness was not widely publicized.

Cohn literally and determinedly pulled and dragged his grubby little company up from the squalor – and in an astonishingly short amount of time, even for such a young industry, managed to anoint her as a major force in the industry, first with profits, then with respectability, and finally with Academy Awards and genuine if  begrudging prestige.

The physical lot he did this on certainly reflects the company’s hand-to-mouth origins.  Cohn’s plant was the smallest, physically, of any of the seven sisters.  Even at its largest it was only a city block deep by half a block wide.  Columbia Studios always looked like a hodgepodge ghetto of squalid little offices and, eventually, 14 over-worked and mostly closet-size soundstages.

Any sort of significant backlot here was nearly impossible; consequently, in 1934 Cohn purchased a ranch facility a half dozen miles away from his chaotic fiefdom up in Burbank. Other movie ranches, Warners, Fox’s, RKO’s, Paramount’s, were usually hundreds, sometimes thousands of acres across, containing terrain suitable for any sort of location.  Cohn’s cut-rate equivalent was a whopping 40 acres (a second 40-acre parcel was quickly sold off). In 1952’s High Noon, it is possible to spot the telephones poles and post war tract houses spiraling across the “Western” landscape during the famous crane shot near the climax.

Cohn’s spread however, did evolve into one of the more interesting satellite backlots.  Perhaps because space was so limited, and budgets so low, many of the facades constructed there saw an inordinate amount of duty over an inordinate number of years.  A single curved block of residential homes, which either had no backs, or which had two fronts so as to be eligible for double duty, started appearing in features from the late ’30s but really reached iconic status from the 1950s onward when Screen Gems, Columbia’s television division (started in 1949) began shooting their domestic-themed sitcoms there.

Until this street is experienced first hand, it is impossible to imagine that the home of TV’s Dennis the Menace is the same set used as the home of Donna Reed.  Or that the house next to it was Blondie’s home, the I Dream of Jeannie house, and the home where Father Knows Best.  Or that the house next to that was used in both Bewitched and The Partridge Family.  Or that the Bewitched home is next to the house used in the Lethal Weapon film series, as a not-so-stately Wayne manor in a Batman serial, and as the home of both Gidget and Hazel!  In 1999 this entire, surreal city block stared in the feature film Pleasantville. The plot concerned a strange place inside a black and white television where old sitcoms flower magically to life.

The real world however, could not be kept out. The turmoil the movie industry faced in general in the 1970s hit Columbia particularly hard.  In 1972, the young business school grads who had inherited Cohn’s cramped offices on Gower Street vacated many of them to cohabitate with Warner Bros. up in Burbank.  They turned the original lot, briefly, into a tennis club. In 1998,  Columbia moved across town again, this time to its current digs, the old MGM Lot One. The Columbia Ranch stayed part of Warner Bros., which it remains today.

rko manhole

RKO was in a similar situation to Columbia, although “the biggest little major” always had the prestige and cache that Columbia originally lacked.  The studio was the first major created after the coming of sound --as its logo, that of a beeping radio tower astride the globe seemed to testify.  An actual, physical replica of this insignia used to stand on the corner of Melrose and Gower Streets, astride one of the company’s soundstages.  The studio underneath this logo was hardly any bigger than Columbia, which lay only a few blocks north but in a decidedly shoddier neighborhood.  And as with Columbia, it seemed in the early days that the executives inside would be forced by the cramped locale to build their exterior sets off-lot in the San Fernando Valley.

Instead, those executives purchased an entire, preexisting studio complex, actually another old Thomas Ince lot, also in Culver City, in January 1931 – instantly fortifying the company with an additional 11 soundstages and a spectacular standing backlot as well.  Most RKO pictures from this era were shot at one or both of these facilities, with the interiors often being shot on Gower Street and the exteriors out on “40 Acres.”  In 1937 the studio also purchased 88 additional acres in the San Fernando Valley – Encino, actually.

With postwar hard times, the Hollywood lots were purchased by General Tire and Rubber in 1955 and shortly thereafter RKO ceased active production. Lucile Ball, once a perky RKO starlet achieved the dream of every starlet by buying her old studio for her own production company, Desilu, in 1956.

Paramount Pictures was RKO’s next door neighbor.  In 1967 Paramount executives bought the property and removed the wall between the two lots.  The surviving studio now occupies the entire 65-acre compound.  Even today, a walk across Paramount’s grounds will reveal ghostly touches of RKO, including the manhole covers on the west side of the studio, which still say “RKO” (One wonders if there are any companies today, however affluent, that would go to the expense of putting their names on sewer fixtures that would be seen only by employees!) Even the famous Paramount studio water tower was in fact once part of the original RKO property.  The beeping radio tower facing the street has been removed too, of course, but the globe it stood on paradoxically remains. It looks down on a very different world indeed.

Paramount, 1976.

Paramount, 1976.

Like RKO, Paramount, has always suffered somewhat in that their location, right in the center of Hollywood, became valuable quicker than the outlaying suburbs of Culver City and Burbank. With the “movie boom” of the teens and twenties came escalating real estate prices.  And, so relatively early in the game the studios with the most desirable and centralized locations, responsible for the sudden local growth to begin with, found themselves with no place to expand beyond their current locations.  Paramount’s lot was big enough for this to not be as much of a problem as it was for RKO and for Columbia, but they never had the space for the sprawling backlots which could be found at some of the other, outlying studios.

A look at the Paramount product tends to bear this out.  Most of the studio’s pictures are rather stage-bound.  There are few exteriors, and these are often soundstage exteriors, with painted backdrops and process screens substituting for the real thing. Artistically, this somewhat artificial mise en scene gave the studio’s pictures a definite and recognizable “house style.” And yet this look was definitely an economic choice rather than an artistic one.

To alleviate their lack of suitable exteriors, Paramount purchased a 2,400-acre ranch near Malibu in 1927 although perhaps due to its somewhat distant location it wasn’t used as much as other studio ranches. Sets included a New England Street, a frontier village and Calvary fort.  They actually sold the property in 1953 but continued to lease parts of it, along with other studios and independent producers, for decades.   Today the property is owned by the state. A western town, constructed shortly after the Paramount era ended still stands on the grounds. Television’s Carnivale and Dr Quinn: Medicine Woman have been comparatively recent tenants.

The primary backlot area Paramount constructed on their main lot was paradoxically built near the center of the studio and buttressed up against the wall looking over into RKO. Closest to that iconic main gate, which everyone still associates with the studio (and which, in case you ever wondered, was constructed between August 24 and September 10, 1926) stood, until the mid 1970’s, a smallish version of that must-have on every studio lot, a small-town business district. Until 1979, a “Western Street” stood on real estate where a massive parking lot sprawls today (Amusing but unsubstantiated rumors at the time held that Paramount was afraid to dismantle their Western town while John Wayne still lived!). The hundreds of black BMW’s which now bake under the California sun occupy ground where many a cinematic cowboy found immortality or oblivion.  A most interesting feature about this set was the artificial mountain range which buttressed the north western flank of the set, and kept audiences from realizing that unlike some of the street’s suburban cinematic neighbors, Paramount was in the middle of a city – even if that city was Hollywood.

A 75-foot-high sky backdrop (The original was built in 1947, the surviving version is a copy) still stands on the northern edge of the studio’s impressive “New York Street.”  At five acres and with five separate and distinct districts, it is one of the most impressive sets of its kind.  Unfortunately, the set which visitors and film goers see today is actually a copy of an older “New York Street” which was destroyed in a fire in 1983.  Happily, in 1991, it was rebuilt.

Incidentally, the South LA community of Paramount was founded in 1946 and was in fact named after the studio.

20th Century-Fox backlot and tank, 1940.

20th Century-Fox backlot and tank, 1940.

Twentieth Century-Fox is the studio which most tried to emulate the success of MGM.  Physically, their lot, located west of Beverly Hills in a community later and tellingly called Century City, was closer to Metro’s in size, ambition and even geographically, than any other.  In one respect at least, Fox was actually superior in that the entire property, almost 300 acres at one point, was located on one large parcel of land, and not broken up or eviscerated by distance or highways  (although Olympic Blvd. cut the plant into two distinct halves).  Some of this real estate was never really developed for production, although the open land must have come in handy.  Oil wells, real ones, not props, dotted the eastern side of the lot for decades. Quality-wise, the Fox pictures, while not really inferior to MGM, often felt so because their predominant choice of genres; musicals and period pictures, seemed consciously designed to echo the pictures made down the road in Culver City

The front lot, as befitting its (near-) Beverly Hills location, was beautifully maintained and landscaped.  The “sound” stages – for in fact they were the first of their kind constructed for sound anywhere – decorated with ornate statuary and scrollwork, looked more like a carefully regulated civil engineering project than a factory.  At least the early ones did.  The later stages are less gaudy, giving the whole place a sort of Oz-meets-the-Bowery-Boys lopsidedness.

Our traveler walking across the backlot could have encountered, depending on which decade he took the trip, any of the following:  “Bernadette Street” (from The Song of Bernadette, 1943) a French village, a Roman “slave market” set,   an enormous and pillared “Colonial Home,” a “Spanish Street,” a “Swiss Set,” a “German Village,” a partial castle with a moat. “Algerian Street” was a sort of Ali Baba/Jerusalem compound which sat behind the “English Garden of Charles II” – which was beautifully decked out with swimming pool and rolling lawns.  Behind this all was a long “New York Street” which dated to 1931.  “Tombstone Street” was the ambiguous Western village; It rested across from the “Alaska Town” and the “New England Street.” All of this finally led to the company’s back gate on Santa Monica Blvd. – a real Los Angeles street by the way, not a backlot.  Commuters on this street for years could see part of the elaborate Titanic model constructed for the 1953 picture peeking over the fence.

The East Lot, on the other side of the soundstage sector, contained the “New” “New York Street,” A section of Railroad, a “Compound” or fortress set, and a vast section of desert.  The Chicago set from In Old Chicago (1938) also stood in this sector and covered nearly six acres.  This area was redressed in 1944 and doubled for a gas-lit London in The Lodger. The “Chicago Lake” stood on one end and was repeatedly drained and refilled to portray every body of water on the planet for the 25 years.  “The Waterways,” a series of locks and canals also stood nearby.  “Jones Street” the studio’s all important residential street, also stood over here.

As if every location in the known world was not covered on-lot somewhere, Fox also maintained a ranch near the Paramount Ranch in Malibu.  They purchased the property in 1946, after leasing real estate in the area for several years.  The studio sold the property to the State of California in 1974.

Fox was the first studio to suffer physically from the contractions the film industry faced in the 1960s and ’70s.  The enormous overhead accrued by Cleopatra which was shooting in Europe in 1963, literally forced the moguls running the studio back in California to begin selling off some of their now-trendy Westside real estate upon which the studio had been built in order to meet payroll.

The acres of sets and landscaped lawns toppled over.  The lakes were drained. The palaces and kingdoms were disassembled.  In their place rose the skyscrapers and shopping malls and law firms of CenturyCity.  As recently as the mid-80’s, the beautiful commissary where Tyrone Power and Shirley Temple had once supped was halved to build a monolithic office tower.  One of these skyscrapers, decades later, would one day house MGM.

By 1969, when Fox was producing Hello Dolly, there was no backlot left on which to construct the elaborate turn-of-the-century New York Street the production called for.  Instead, the sets were built on the front lot; in the parking lots, across the lawns, on top of the offices and over the front of the administration buildings where the decision had been made to dismantle the studio in the first place.  It was as if, ghoulishly, those administrators, having devoured the backlots, the sinew and very flesh of the studio, now found themselves surrounded, entombed, and eaten by the very thing, the very flickering ghost they thought they had destroyed.

Many of the minor studios and several of the rental lots constructed permanent exterior set at various times and of varying degrees of interest and complexity. The Republic lot in Studio City, which survives and is now owned by CBS, being a particularly notable example.  Notable sets on this property included, naturally, several large Western streets, and the lagoon later used in the TV series Gilligan’s Island.  Part of a residential street survives today.

Powerful independent producers Sam Goldwyn and David O. Selznick also kept standing backlots on their property.  Goldwyn’s contained a few blocks of city streets and a small town district.  A “New York Street” lasted there into the late-’70s.

Selznick leased the “40 acres” Thomas Ince backlot of which RKO was the longtime landlord (and which for the record, was actually 28 acres) He burned down most of his standing sets spectacularly  on camera for Gone With The Wind (1939) Cannily, he then built his Atlanta sets over the ashes for that picture.

These vaguely “southern” facades saw duty for decades, most prominently on The Andy Griffith Show for American television.  At various times the backlot also contained the Hogan’s Heroes prisoner’s compound (built on the site of GWTW’s Tara), the Gomer Pyle Army barracks, a Western village, a jungle (utilized in RKO’s  Tarzan film series), an Arabian village, and detailed New York and Chicago Streets (kept very busy in The Untouchables TV series). The backlot portion of the studio, which was located near the end of Ince Blvd., was torn down in 1976 and is now an industrial park whose warehouses are used by a space-starved film industry for television production.

The Disney lot, 1959.

The Disney lot, 1959.

The other major independent producer of the era was, of course, Walt Disney.

Disney had little need for a standing backlot until the early 1950s.  Before this, most of his sets were, like most of his stars, painted cells animated for the camera. “I’ve always admired you” Alfred Hitchcock was reputed have told Disney at an apocryphal Hollywood party in the ’40s. “If you don’t like your actors, you can tear them up.”

The first Disney studio was located at 2719 Hyperion Ave in Hollywood (a grocery store today) and contained no facilities for live-action production.  Disney moved his operations to a 51-acre tract he had paid $100,000 for in Burbank in 1940 after the success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.  Designer Ken Webber crafted all of the original buildings, imbuing the lot with a campus-like unity alien to the random hodge-podges of architectural chaos that existed at any other studio. The first soundstage was constructed at this time and was used for the occasional live action or live action/animation hybrid produced by the studio.  Stage 2 was constructed in 1949 and was used for live action features and television, including Dragnet (an original tenant) and “The Mickey Mouse Club.”  Stage 3 was built in 1954 and includes the underwater tank used extensively for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.  The cavernous Stage 4 was built for Darby O’Gill and the Little People in 1958 and later subdivided for TV to become 4 and 5 (1988), Stage 6 and 7 were not completed until 1997.

In 1959, even as he started building a backlot on his own studio, Disney purchased a 700-acre ranch in Santa Clarita and started building sets there as well, mostly of the Western variety.  Golden Oaks Ranch, as it is called, and which Disney is still developing, remains a valuable location, not just for Disney but for all of the real estate-starved modern studios

On his Burbank lot, an early California pueblo set was constructed in 1957 for use in the Zorro TV series and became the first permanent standing set on the property.  It contained several blocks of cobblestone streets, a fountain, a fort, and a town square.  The result was versatile enough to be successfully redressed into a French olive plantation for Monkeys Go Home (1967) and a British village in Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971).   It was demolished in the mid-eighties and replaced, inspirationally, by the current “Zorro Parking Structure.”

A “Western Street” was constructed in 1958.  It too was rebuilt several times over the decades and stood in for the Irish countryside in Darby O’Gill and the Little People, (1959) and a beachfront fishing village in Pete’s Dragon (1977 — complete with ocean!)  “Western Street” was bulldozed in 1988.

A “Residential Street” was added in the early 1960s.  So by this time the only backlot staple missing from Disney’s fiefdom was a small town business street.  Disney of course, had already built just such a town, not at his studio but at Disneyland.

Walt Disney apparently had been looking for and recreating this street, in different ways ever since his childhood in tiny Marceline, Missouri.   His somewhat wistful longing for the charm of small-town America was common to men of Disney’s age and era.  A look at the works of such diverse artists as Thornton Wilder, Thomas Wolfe, William Saroyan, Sterling North, Rod Serling, Ray Bradbury, Norman Rockwell,  Frank Capra, Booth Tarkington, Meredith Wilson, and Earl Hamner Jr. reveals this same longing for a world which each of them had, presumably chosen to leave behind and then regretted forever.

Disney finally did order a small town American street built in 1965, obstinately, for 1966’s Follow Me Boys.  The set would rise near the north east corner of the lot, to compliment his already standing residential street. Oddly though, “Business  Street” as the set was called, turned out to be a decent if not spectacular shooting space.  Designer John Mamsbridge found that by this time there was little he could add to the street Walt had been over-designing in his head and at Disneyland for a decade.  In 1965, there was little more to be done except copy the copies and uncork the nostalgia.  The somewhat pedestrian result would turn out be Walt’s last personal addition to his studio, He would die less than a year later.

The “Business Street” backlot would survive Disney by a decade-and-a-half before being rebuilt for Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes in 1981 and demolished entirely in 1994. It was, at that time, the last existent sector of Disney’s original backlot. Stages 6 and 7 stand on the site today.

Walt’s original lot now has one tiny exterior set, a Midwest-themed boulevard built in 1997 over the outer wall of the Plumbing Department.  It consists of one half of one side of one city block.  Like its forbearer, it is christened “Business Street,” perhaps as much a hope for future production bookings as a homage.

Our tour of Hollywood’s lots and backlots then is over.  As has been observed in our travels, most of Hollywood’s backlots are now either gone or have been repurposed into parking lots or office space.   And with the advent of “virtual backlots” created inside a computer the future doesn’t look rosy.

So if you plan on visiting Hollywood and climbing that fence, you’d better do it soon.

****

Steven Bingen is a historian, author, and former archivist for Warner Bros., who has written or contributed to innumerable books, articles, and documentaries on Hollywood history. In 2011, Steve coauthored MGM: Hollywood’s Greatest Backlot, the first significant book ever published about a movie studio lot. His latest book is Warner Bros: Hollywood’s Ultimate Backlot, an acre by acre and scandal by scandal examination of the legendary studio. He also authored the screenplay for 2012′s The Ghastly Love of Johnny X, which was the last theatrical feature film ever shot on black and white film stock. Appropriately enough, Steve lives in the world’s largest backlot, also known as Los Angeles.

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Bigamist Featured

DVD Review: “The Bigamist” (1953)

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Seeing how much the movie industry and the media outlets covering it love to pay lipservice to women in film, it’s a mystery why they actually give so little coverage to pioneering female filmmakers, particularly Ida Lupino. Lupino was Hollywood’s first female producer-director, and she even co-wrote some of her films as well. (Director Dorothy Arzner preceded Lupino, but Arzner wasn’t a producer.) And, more to the point, Lupino was a damn good filmmaker whose work in movies and television has stood the test of time very well. And now, one of her best films The Bigamist (1953) has been remastered by Film Chest and is being released on DVD.

Outside of a 2010 Museum of Modern Art retrospective, Lupino’s achievements behind the camera have largely been ignored in favor of her work as an actress, particularly her performances at Warner Bros. in the 1940s as tough, hard-boiled dames in melodramas like They Drive by Night, High Sierra, The Hard Way, and The Man I Love. (Occasionally, Warners cast her in more conventional ingénue roles in films such as The Sea Wolf, Out of the Fog, and Deep Valley, her last for the studio.) “The poor man’s Bette Davis” was Lupino’s own self-depreciating description of her standing at Warners. (Her first film for the studio, They Drive by Night, was a semi-remake of Bordertown, with Lupino in the role that Davis played in the original.)

When her contract at Warners ran out in the late 40s, rather than renewing it, Lupino decided to try freelancing, like so many other actors did at a time when the “studio system” first began to unravel. Lupino had spent a great deal of her time at Warners on “suspension,” the studio’s notorious punishment for “rebellious” actors, something she had in common with Davis, James Cagney, and Olivia de Havilland. (It was de Havilland who successfully sued Warners over the practice, with the Supreme Court of California ruling it to be illegal, the first nail in the coffin of the aforementioned studio system. The US Supreme Court’s anti-trust ruling forcing the studios to divest themselves of their theater chains and the growing popularity of television were the next two major setbacks to the studios.) It was during these “suspension” periods that Lupino first became interested in the behind-the-scenes aspects of filmmaking, hanging out with directors and writers and learning the tricks of the trade from them. She was also motivated by wanting to have total control over her film work.

As a result, in addition to acting in other studios’ movies, Lupino and her second husband Collier Young formed an independent production company called The Filmakers, after first producing Not Wanted (1949), in which Lupino made her directorial debut unintentionally. Elmer Clifton, the director contracted for Not Wanted (about an out-of-wedlock pregnancy) suffered a heart attack before filming began and Lupino took over (uncredited). Lupino’s subsequent directorial efforts for the Filmakers included Never Fear, Outrage (dealing with rape, another feminist-oriented subject that was considered taboo by the Production Code), and Hard, Fast and Beautiful. In 1953, Lupino made her two most notable directing efforts, The Hitch-Hiker (her only out-and-out film noir) and The Bigamist. At this point in her career, Lupino amended her self-description to “the poor man’s Don Siegel.” (A filmmaker who could work wonders on meager budgets, Siegel directed The Filmakers’ 1954 production of Private Hell 36.) After The Bigamist, Lupino’s directing career continued mainly on television, with the exception of the last theatrical film (and only comedy) she ever directed The Trouble with Angels in 1966. (Much of Lupino’s work for the small screen also revealed a flair for the macabre, particularly in the episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Thriller, and The Twilight Zone that she directed.)

As the title makes obvious, The Bigamist dealt with another taboo subject. Originally, as was the case with Not Wanted, Lupino was not supposed to direct The Bigamist; she was only going to act in the film, which was co-produced (with Robert Eggenweiler) and co-written (with Larry Marcus) by Lupino’s then ex-husband Young. (Soon after the divorce, both Lupino and Young had remarried, she to Howard Duff and he to Joan Fontaine.) That game plan changed when Jane Greer, who was set to play the other female lead, dropped out. Fontaine offered to take Greer’s place, but only if Lupino would direct The Bigamist as well. Lupino never wanted to direct herself, but she agreed in order to get the film underway. Which is how the two Mrs. Youngs ending up playing the two wives of the title character Harry Graham (Edmond O’Brien, previously the lead in The Hitch-Hiker), a San Francisco-based small business owner who doubles as his own traveling salesman.

We first meet Harry and Wife #1, Eve (Fontaine), when they’re being interviewed by kindly child welfare official Mr. Jordan (Edmund Gwenn) as part of their adoption application. (Eve is unable to have a child.) For the most part, the interview goes well… until Harry betrays a momentary discomfort at signing the required form that gives Jordan permission to investigate their backgrounds to determine their suitability as adoptive parents, a hesitation that does not go unnoticed by Jordan. After the Grahams leave, Jordan expresses his doubts for the record in the Dictaphone recording of his notes: “From a preliminary interview, in my opinion, they would make fit parents, but something bothers me about Mr. Graham. He seemed impatient during the interview, a chip-on-the-shoulder sort of attitude. He… he behaved rather strangely when signing the… the permission to investigate form. Perhaps it is my imagination. I’ll report further when I visit the Grahams’ home for the customary inspection next week.”

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From this point, The Bigamist follows a traditional “three-act” structure of storytelling. Act One is in the form of a miniature mystery in which Jordan acts as a sleuth determined to unearth Harry’s secret, even to the extent of trailing him to Los Angeles, where he conducts most of his out-of-town business. Eventually, Jordan stumbles onto the fact that, rather than staying in a hotel, Graham owns a home in the LA suburbs. Turning up on Harry’s doorstep one night, Jordan discovers what the audience already knows, thanks to the film’s title and advertising, that there’s a second Mrs. Graham. Not only that, but Harry and Wife #2, Phyllis (Lupino), have an infant son as well.

Act Two is a lengthy flashback that takes up about half the movie as Harry tells Jordan the story of how he came to have two households. It seems that Harry and Phyllis “met cute” (to use the old screenwriters’ term) when, out of sheer boredom, Harry took an LA  bus tour of the stars’ homes and struck up a conversation with Phyllis, a waitress in a Chinese restaurant. They had a one-night stand that resulted in Phyllis’ pregnancy. Too weak-willed to divorce Eve (who’s also his business partner), but wanting to do the right thing by Phyllis, Harry proposed marriage to Phyllis and started the family that Eve couldn’t give him.

The sequences dealing with Harry and Phyllis’ brief fling and her subsequent pregnancy are a prime example of the absurdities imposed by the then-weakened but still enforced Code. Thanks to the Code’s infantile restrictions, there’s no hint of Harry and Phyllis enjoying a night of intimacy, nor is the word “pregnant” ever uttered in the scene where Harry learns that Phyllis is carrying his child, which is couched in the most evasively suggested terms possible. The Code was also responsible for the abrupt, unsatisfying resolution of the film’s third act, which conformed to the demand that all lawbreakers must face legal retribution.

The Bigamist’s script, Lupino’s direction, Leith Stevens’s music score, and George Diskant’s black-and-white cinematography waver between domestic drama and noir (particularly in the first two acts) before settling on the former. (Although the seedy restaurant Phyllis works in and the scarred, scowling face of its owner seemingly promise that noir will be the film’s dominant mood.) Despite the somberness of the subject matter and the sober approach taken to the material, the script does indulge in some playful Hollywood in-jokes. There are not one but two references to Gwenn’s most famous role, his Oscar-winning performance as Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street. Eve tells Harry that she thinks Jordan “looks like Santa Claus.” And during the bus tour, the driver/guide points out Gwenn’s home, referring to the actor as “the little man who is Santa Claus to the whole world.” The homes of Lupino’s former Warners colleagues Barbara Stanwyck and Jane Wyman are also name-checked in this scene.

As she always did, Lupino got excellent performances from her cast, including herself.  She and Fontaine both contribute subtle, understated acting turns as the two Mrs. Grahams. Gwenn gives a charming, low-key performance as a dedicated public servant who is torn between duty and pity when confronting Harry about his deceit. O’Brien manages to make Harry an ultimately sympathetic (and rather pathetic) character, while still imbuing him with the sweaty neuroticism that was typical of his roles in the late 40s and early 50s.

Although Film Chest’s press release says that this version of The Bigamist was “restored from original 35mm materials,” the state of those materials obviously were not as well preserved as Film Chest’s previous remastered film release Hollow Triumph. For most of the film, the visual quality of Film Chest’s The Bigamist DVD is sharp and crisp, but noticeable scratching appears periodically and there is a little jumpiness in the opening credits. Still, the overall quality of this version of The Bigamist is light years ahead of Alpha Video’s earlier DVD version with its murky print and muddy soundtrack.

Harold Ramis

A Tribute to Harold Ramis: “Ten Reasons Why ‘Caddyshack’ May Be the Best Summertime Comedy Ever”

Harold Ramis

The recent demise of writer/director/comic actor Harold Ramis at age 69 was a shock to most people, though I suspect that baby boomers like myself were particularly shaken and reminded of their own mortality. Yet one more of the seemingly immortal Young Turks of counterculture comedy has left us prematurely, joining the ranks of John Belushi, Gilda Radner, John Candy, Michael O’Donoghue, Phil Hartman, and The Firesign Theatre’s Peter Bergman. There have, of course, been numerous accolades for Ramis and his achievements, not just for the movies he appeared in or either wrote or directed or both, but also his work with Second City, The National Lampoon Radio Hour, and Second City’s television spin-off SCTV. (Ramis was SCTV’s first head writer in addition to being a cast member in its first two seasons. Although SCTV never enjoyed the ratings or financial success of its chief rival and inspiration Saturday Night Live, it was the funnier series and the material has dated far less.) The posthumous praise was predictably followed by the inevitable detractors pointing out that not everything Ramis touched turned to gold, especially in the last decade of his filmmaking career. (Admittedly, the least said about mutts like Year One and the bewilderingly pointless remake of Bedazzled, the better. But then even comedy giants like Laurel & Hardy and the Marx Brothers took their last bows in unworthy failures like Atoll K and Love Happy.)

As fate would have it, I recently revisited Ramis’ directorial debut Caddyshack (1980), which he also co-wrote with Douglas Kenney (co-founder of and former editor/writer for National Lampoon) and Brian Doyle-Murray (Bill Murray’s big brother). I had particularly fond memories of Caddyshack from days passed and was pleasantly surprised to learn that, unlike so many similar “slobs vs. snobs” comedies of the period, it’s stood the test of time pretty well. Other than how amusing it still remains, the other surprising aspect about seeing Caddyshack nowadays is the sense of melancholy the film has acquired over the years that certainly wasn’t present when it first premiered in July 1980. That melancholy can be attributed to a pair of missed opportunities that weren’t apparent at the time.

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To explain the first of those “missed opportunities,” a little historical context is in order. In its brief century or so of existence, American movies have had only two Renaissances of comedy. The first one was in the silent days when top clowns like Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, and Harry Langdon reigned supreme. The second and even more impressive comedy Renaissance occurred in the talkies’ first decade when audiences were presented with a cinematic smorgasbord of great comedians that included W.C. Fields, Stan Laurel & Oliver Hardy, the Marx Brothers, Joe E. Brown, Will Rogers, Eddie Cantor, Bert Wheeler & Robert Woolsey, Jack Benny, Bob Hope, and the Three Stooges, as well as some “legitimate” actors with wicked comedy chops, such as James Cagney, Carole Lombard, William Powell, Glenda Farrell, Lee Tracy, Warren William, and Cary Grant.

With the phenomenal success in the mid- to late-1970s of Saturday Night Live and, to a lesser extent, SCTV, it seemed as though we were in for a third film comedy Renaissance as soon as the aforementioned Young Turks of counterculture humor in those shows’ casts made the jump from the small screen to the silver one. Alas, of all the films that resulted when those comic artists made that transition, only two of them, Animal House and Caddyshack, fulfilled that promise. (Not coincidentally, both films had National Lampoon magazine alumni working on them.) But rather than being the tip of an iceberg, these two movies were instead the crest of a wave that crashed ignobly with overblown, unfunny behemoths like 1941 and The Blues Brothers. And the subsequent film comedies starring these young comics just got progressively worse. Only Frank Oz’s 1986 film version of the off-Broadway musical comedy adaptation of Little Shop of Horrors and Ramis’ 1993 comedy-fantasy Groundhog Day (generally regarded as Ramis’ masterpiece) managed to be exceptions. (The fact that both of these films featured Bill Murray, the only SNL cast member to become a major movie star, was also no coincidence.) Hence, the first of the two “missed opportunities.” (More on the second one later.)

With that intro out of the way, here are 10 reasons that Caddyshack may just be the best summertime comedy ever.

1. The setting

Legendary filmmaker Billy Wilder once said, “I think the funniest picture the Marx Brothers ever made was A Night at the Opera because opera is such a deadly serious background.” Similarly, Ramis, Kenney, and Doyle-Murray realized that country clubs were equally intimidating bastions of elitism, bigotry, and conformity. Kenney, in particular, hoped that Caddyshack would be an even sharper dissection of the divide between the Haves and the Have Nots in America than the script for Animal House that he and Ramis co-wrote. In fact, the script had many autobiographical references to incidents experienced by Ramis and the Murray brothers, all of whom caddied at local country clubs as teenagers. In 1988, Bill Murray told the New York Times Magazine, “The kids who were members of the club were despicable; you couldn’t believe the attitude they had. I mean, you were literally walking barefoot in a T-shirt and jeans, carrying some privileged person’s sports toys on your back for five miles.”

Anyone who’s ever been a golf aficionado or had a friend or relative devoted to golfing knows that the sport demands an even greater level of allegiance and dedication than the most fanatical of religions. In this respect, the fictional Bushwood Country Club was an ideal setting for a satirical slapstick comedy. Although the vast majority of the principal shooting was done on location in Florida, the story is definitely set in the mid-West (Illinois, the Murrays’ home state, to be specific). In fact, Ramis deliberately selected the Rolling Hills Golf Club in Davie, Florida, for the golfing sequences because it didn’t have any palm trees.

2. The script

Or, rather, what was left of the script by the time filming commenced. Ramis, Kenney and Doyle-Murray originally conceived Caddyshack as a coming-of-age comedy/drama revolving around the teenage caddies at Bushwood, particularly Danny Noonan (Michael O’Keefe), a boy fresh out of high school who  experiences the most significant summer of his young life as he deals with romantic entanglements, rivalries with his fellow caddies, and the social barriers he needs to overcome in order to win the club’s annual caddy scholarship to finance the college education his large, cash-strapped Catholic family can’t afford. That’s what Caddyshack was supposed to be about, but—oh, yeah, the script also had a few zany country club regulars that the caddies would encounter, you know, just tiny bit parts, practically cameo appearances—and this is where the original script ended up being thrown to the four winds. As it turned out, three of the four performers hired to play those wacky regulars—Bill Murray, Chevy Chase, and Rodney Dangerfield—were comedians who were used to ignoring scripts and working off-the-cuff. Of course, Ramis could’ve asserted his authority and demanded that the three of them quit improvising their lines and stick to the script—which brings us to the next reason.

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3. The director

To this day, it remains unclear exactly why executive producer Jon Peters entrusted the helming of Caddyshack to Harold Ramis, who’d never directed a movie before, but the choice turned out to be an inspired one. Ramis may’ve lacked experience as a filmmaker, but, fortunately, he had a wealth of knowledge about improvisational comedy, thanks to his time with Chicago’s Second City, which made him the ideal candidate for directing—or, perhaps, more accurately, not interfering with—his top bananas as they improvised their way through scenes. As Ramis explained in “The 19th Hole,” a 1999 documentary about the making of Caddyshack compiled for the DVD release, “We always trusted improvisation. We never felt we were just ad-libbing it or winging it. It’s an actual technique and a method that allows you to create material instantly and it’s not just, you know, grabbed out of thin air. You actually plan what you’re going to do and you have a—it’s like having a script without finished dialogue.”

It’s also worth noting that there are several scenes where the younger cast members can be seen cracking up on camera at the antics of their elders. Thanks to his background, Ramis realized that, in comedy, spontaneity is far more important than neatness, and let the cameras continue to roll, whereas a more experienced hack would’ve yelled “cut” and kept reshooting until the actors “got it right,” even though the freshness of the moment would’ve be completely lost. (Hey, even as seasoned a professional as Cary Grant can be seen cracking up on camera in Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday as comedian Billy Gilbert improvised his way through a scene.)

4. The filming

Another blessing in disguise was that Ramis’ inexperience as a filmmaker extended to his technical knowledge of the medium as well. By his own admission, his visual approach was mainly to just set up the cameras and record whatever happened in front of them, rather than storyboarding the shots. (Indeed, many of the scenes involving multiple characters were shot with the actors standing like a chorus line.) Whether by design or accident, this approach was similar to the way film comedies were made during those two aforementioned comedy Renaissances. Back then, most film comedies had a deliberately “flat” look to them. Every inch of the sets would be lit and most of the camera set-ups were mid- or far-shots, so the comedians could ad-lib to their heart’s content and wander around the sets freely without resorting to moving the camera or cutting to different angles.

5. The cast

Caddyshack was a true ensemble piece and not a star vehicle, in that none of the roles dominated the entire proceedings, and the leads were all given equal opportunities to shine.

a. The top bananas

Chevy Chase: Chase, who received top billing, was the film’s biggest name at the time, as difficult as that may be to grasp today. His laid-back turn as dissipated lumber yard heir Ty Webb was the closest he’d ever come to living up to his early promotion as “the new Cary Grant.” Yes, Virginia, believe it or not, Chase was actually that highly thought of at the time. Ironically, it was his crack about Grant being “a homo” on national television that first revealed to the general public what a nasty, mean-spirited bastard he could be. (Scott Colomby, who played caddy Tony D’Annunzio, mentioned in a 2007 interview: “Everyone on the set of Caddyshack was just as cool as humanly possible, except for Chevy Chase. He was a prick.”) Still, Chase was at the top of his game in Caddyshack and his casual throwaway delivery of lines like, “Your uncle molests collies,” was right on the money.

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Rodney Dangerfield: More than any of the other principals, Dangerfield was the movie’s biggest wildcard. Outside of a supporting role in The Projectionist, a small, low-budget, minimally distributed 1971 independent film (which was an unauthorized remake of Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr., no less), Dangerfield had never appeared in a movie before. The writers originally envisioned Don Rickles in the role of Falstaffian nouveau riche construction magnate Al Czervik, but Dangerfield was gaining popularity with young audiences at the time with his guest appearances on The Tonight Show and Saturday Night Live (where, in a parody of The Amazing Colossal Man, he did a series of “he’s so big” jokes with machine-gun rapidity), so Peters decided to go with him. Despite his unfamiliarity with film techniques (he was initially spooked by the inability of the cast and crew to laugh while the cameras were rolling), Dangerfield, a graduate of the Borsht Belt school of stand-up comedy, ended up being the film’s biggest asset, completely walking away with the show (much to the dismay of some of the other cast members). Many of his one-liners have become oft-quoted over the years, such as his remark to his Chinese golfing guest as they first enter Bushwood, “I think this place is restricted, Wang, so don’t tell ‘em you’re Jewish.” It would also seem that, of all the other older members of the cast, Dangerfield bonded the most with the younger actors, mainly because of their mutual appreciation for recreational drugs. In that same 2007 interview, Colomby revealed that the laundry room of the motel where the cast and crew were booked became the designated partying area, and that occasionally after hours Dangerfield would ask him, “Hey, Scott, you wanna do some laundry?”

Bill Murray:  While many of Chase’s and Dangerfield’s lines were impromptu, by all accounts, Murray’s dialogue was entirely improvised during his six days on the set. Much more than Chase, Murray represented the outlaw nature of counterculture comedy, and Murray’s mastery of “stream of consciousness” humor was better than any other comic in the business, even Robin Williams’. The audience never learns the back-story of Murray’s character, greenskeeper Carl Speckler, so it’s not clear if he’s just a slow-thinking stoner with delusions of grandeur or a brain-damaged Vietnam vet (the war was still fresh in peoples’ minds then and was still considered fair game for satirical comedy), but it’s irrelevant. His role is central in setting up the running gag that serves as the framework for many of the comic set-pieces, Carl’s obsessive determination to kill the gopher that’s infested the golf course, and Murray’s fevered monologues about outsmarting his “enemy” provided the movie with some of its funniest moments. Another off-the-cuff moment, Murray’s celebrated “Cinderella boy” speech, was a perfect example of his skill at improvisation. (As writer Tad Friend explained in a 2004 New Yorker article about Ramis: “Ramis took Murray aside and said, ‘When you’re playing sports, do you ever just talk to yourself like you’re the announcer?’ Murray said, ‘Say no more,’ and did his monologue in one take.”) The scene is all the more impressive seeing as the only description of it in the script was: “The sky is beginning to darken. Carl, the greenskeeper is absently lopping the heads off bedded tulips as he practices his golf swing with a grass whip.” (At Murray’s request, mums were substituted for tulips.)

Ted Knight: While rewatching Caddyshack, it became apparent that the performance that gains the most with each subsequent viewing is that of Ted Knight as the movie’s bad guy: pompous, reactionary WASP Judge Smails. Although Knight was no stranger to playing heavies on shows like The Twilight Zone and Peter Gunn early in his television career, the Judge was his first out-and-out comedic villain. And, as such, he succeeded brilliantly in becoming the movies’ best stuffed-shirt comic foil since Sig Ruman sputtered in apoplectic rage at the insults of Groucho Marx. In essence, Dangerfield played Groucho to Knight’s Ruman, a conflict that practically mirrored their off-camera relationship as well. Knight was an actor of the old school who would learn his lines to the letter with the intention of delivering them exactly as written, and he was completely thrown by Dangerfield’s constant ad-libbing. Cindy Morgan, who played Lacey Underall, the Judge’s promiscuous niece, once commented on Facebook, “[Knight] wasn’t playing angry, he was being angry.” Whether real or not, Knight’s exasperated frustration provided the film with a formidable enough antagonist for the other clowns to bounce off of.

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b. The kids and the second bananas: It was the younger members of the cast who inadvertently provided some of the film’s current sense of melancholia resulting from the second case of “missed opportunities.” In the initial stages of scripting and filming Caddyshack, O’Keeefe, Sarah Holcomb (as Danny’s Irish girlfriend, club waitress Maggie O’Hooligan), and Colomby were intended to be the movie’s stars, but the more the roles of Ty, Al, Carl, and the Judge were enlarged, the less prominent the roles of Danny, Maggie, and Tony became. What was supposed to have been their breakthrough roles instead reduced them to the traditional ingénue parts that were regularly found in the movies of the Marx Brothers. (O’Keefe went on to extensive work on television and the stage, whereas Holcomb, who had also played Clorette DePasto in Animal House, became ensnared in Hollywood’s drug culture and soon retired from movies.) In all fairness, the romantic scenes between O’Keefe and Holcomb had a genuine sweetness and emotional sensitivity that kept them from becoming the type of insufferable interruptions that the equivalent “young lovers” scenes in the Marxes’ movies were. In addition, Cindy Morgan’s underrated turn as Lacey showed the professionalism of an accomplished comedienne and is another performance that gains with subsequent viewings. The same goes for Colomby’s Tony, which reflects a smooth, understated assurance as well.

Then there’s the film’s “second bananas” who provided much needed support to the main clowns. One of the most prominent of these supporting roles was Dan Resin as Dr. Beeper, Bushwood’s record-holding golf champion and the Judge’s partner-in-snobbery. (Resin’s best moment in the film comes when, after a swim at the marina, Beeper tries to prove how hip he is by bumming a drag off the joint the rich kids are sharing and almost electrocutes himself by instinctively grabbing his pager when it goes off.) Another invaluable supporting player was screenwriter Doyle-Murray as Lou Loomis, Bushwood’s caddy master and inveterate gambler forever in hock to his bookie. (His best moment occurs when the Judge wins the “odds or evens” contest to determine who tees off first in the climatic golf game and Lou quips with a barely-concealed smirk: “Your honor, your Honor.”)

Also deserving of mention are Hollywood veteran Henry Wilcoxon (best remembered as Marc Anthony in Cecil B. DeMille’s 1934 version of Cleopatra) as the Lutheran Bishop who comes close to being electrocuted himself during “the best game of my life” (played in the midst of a raging thunderstorm) when he vents his anger at “the Good Lord” by furiously shaking his club at the heavens after missing his final putt; Ramis’ former Second City colleague Ann Ryerson as Grace, the gangly tomboy caddy whose Baby Ruth bar winds up in the club’s swimming pool in the movie’s most notorious scene (which, not surprisingly, was deleted for the “edited-for-television” version that predominated on non-cable TV); Jackie Davis as Smoke, Bushwood’s token “Negro” (who gets even with the Judge for his racist joke about “the Jew, the Catholic, and the colored boy” by buffing his golf shoes so hard that sparks fly); Lois Kibbee as the perpetually flustered Mrs. Smails (who lasciviously admires Danny’s young body when he turns up undressed in her bathroom while on the lam from the Judge after getting caught making out with Lacey); John F. Barmon Jr. as the Judge’s slovenly grandson Spaulding (who inspires Al’s crack, “Now I know why tigers eat their young, you know?”); Elaine Aiken and veteran character actor Albert Salmi as Danny’s parents; Peter Berkrot and Minerva Scelza as Tony’s siblings and fellow caddies Angie and Joey (the unspoken implication is that the D’Annunzios are just as large a Catholic family as the Noonans are), and Brian MacConnachie (another National Lampoon alumni) and Scott Powell as Drew and Gatsby, the club hanger-ons who pal around with Al and inadvertently set the Czervik-Smails conflict in motion by inviting their buddy to join them at the club for a golf date.

6. The producer

Doug Kenney is credited as the film’s producer, but by most accounts, he was so caught up in his drug and alcohol habits that his main duties while filming were basically coordinating the extracurricular activities (i.e., partying) that took place after the day’s shooting. (Sadly, Kenney never lived to see the finished film. He was killed in a freak accident while on vacation in Hawaii after the principal photography was completed.) The movie’s real hands-on producer was former hairdresser Jon Peters, who’d just parlayed his professional relationship with Barbra Streisand into becoming a major Hollywood player. Caddyshack was only the fifth movie he’d produced. In addition to taking a chance on Ramis and Dangerfield, Peters also came up with one major inspiration: making the gopher Carl’s determined to off a major on-screen character. As originally scripted and filmed, the only time the audience would see the gopher was in the form of a hand puppet that poked its head out of a hole, prompting Al’s lament, “Hey, that kangaroo stole my ball!” Whether or not it was motivated by Caddyshack being an Orion Pictures production that was going to be distributed by Warner Bros., Peters realized late in the game that the “Carl vs. the gopher” subplot should be patterned along the lines of such similar eternal battles as “Elmer Fudd vs. Bugs Bunny” and “Wile E. Cayote vs. the Road Runner” in Warners’ classic Looney Tunes cartoons. After receiving instructions from Peters to incorporate the gopher into the main action, Ramis initially thought that a live animal could be trained to pull it off, but when that turned out to be unfeasible, John Dykstra, who’d already been commissioned to provide the post-production special effects, was assigned to create an animatronic gopher and the underground network of tunnels it inhabited.

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Peters was also single-handedly responsible for the one element of the film that dates it more than any other aspect: the gratuitous nudity. When Morgan expressed discomfort about doing a skinny-dipping sequence with Chase, Ramis had no problem with acquiescing to her objections, but Peters basically told her to do the scene nude or else. (“Or else” being, of course, the traditional Hollywood threat “you’ll never work in this town again.”) Morgan did manage to stand her ground, however, in refusing to allow a Playboy photographer to cover the skinny-dipping shoot. But there were reasons that films of the 1970s and early 80s (especially comedies) contained brief flashes of nudity other than to titillate the adolescent and teenage boys in the audience; more importantly, it was to avoid the dreaded “G” rating, which was the kiss of death at the box office to any movies not intended exclusively for young children. (George Lucas deliberately inserted a brief shot of a severed arm in Star Wars for the exact same purpose.) With its limited profanity and occasional “gross-out” jokes, Caddyshack was never in danger of being rated “G,” but an “R” was considered so much hipper for a film aimed at teenagers than a “PG.” Of course, this was before the 2000 “scandal” in which a Federal Trade Commission investigation revealed that “R” ratings were a joke and that gory horror pictures, violent action movies, and raunchy comedies were intentionally being marketed to adolescent boys by the Hollywood studios, a “revelation” that had political hacks like Senators McCain, Lieberman, Hatch, and Brownback professing to be shocked, shocked! (One has to wonder what planet they’d been living on.)

7. The music

Singer/songwriter Kenny Loggins had previously composed the song “I Believe in Love” for Streisand and Peters’ remake of A Star is Born, when he was commissioned by Peters to write the original songs for Caddyshack. The songs, “I’m Alright” (the main theme that runs under both the opening and closing credits), “Lead the Way,” and “Mr. Night,” were all fairly catchy with some nice use of choral arrangements in the backgrounds. (A fourth song, “Make the Move,” wasn’t used in the finished film, but was included on the soundtrack album.) “I’m Alright” was a minor hit that generated a lot of airplay, but the best of the bunch is “Mr. Night,” a honky-tonk ode to teenage horniness that accompanies the scene where, to commemorate the annual caddies’ tournament, the caddies are allowed their only admittance into the country club pool for the summer. (A crudely written sign outside the pool states that the caddies are welcome from “1:00 to 1:15.”) “Mr. Night” plays during the first half of the scene to be followed by a brief excerpt from Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker” for a water ballet spoof, and then, when the aforementioned Baby Ruth bar ends up in the pool, Johnny Mandel’s background score parodies John Williams’ iconic “shark music” from Jaws. (Mandel also quoted from Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture” for the film’s climax.)

Mandel was a veteran jazz composer and arranger whose previous film work included his Grammy-winning jazz score for I Want to Live and another major comedy blockbuster M*A*S*H, for which he also composed the theme song “Suicide is Painless.” Mandel’s background score for Caddyshack evokes a deliberately retro vibe reminiscent of the light jazz-influenced orchestral scores that accompanied comedies and comic-thrillers of the 1960s. Interestingly, the one pure jazz piece in Mandel’s score was heard in the background during the Judge’s ritzy gathering at the marina. (It’s a safe bet that the irony of jazz—born in the cotton fields and whore houses of the deep South—being depicted in the movie as “rich people’s music” wasn’t lost on Mandel for a second.)

8. The ethnic humor

Thanks to the paper-thin sensitivities of adherents to Political Correctness, the ethnic humor in Caddyshack is now considered highly controversial, which wasn’t the case when the film first opened. Not surprisingly, about 95% of the ethnic jokes came from Dangerfield, who belonged an older generation of comedians for whom nothing was sacred, least of all ethnic and racial sensitivities. (The other 5% would be Carl’s cracks about the Scottish heritage of his boss Sandy, such as “I’ll fill your bagpipes with Wheatina.”) And the bulk of Al’s ethnic one-liners were generally aimed at the D’Annunzios.

Al: “Hey, you guys are brothers, huh?”

Tony: “Yeah.”

Al: “So what is this, a family business or what? You know, they say, for Italians, this is skilled labor, you know?”

Tony: (sarcastically) “No, actually, I’m a rich millionaire. You see, my doctor told me to go out and carry golf bags a couple of times a week.”

Al: “Hey, you’re a funny kid, you know? What time’re you due back at Boys Town?”

Not to get all highbrow or pretentious about it, but Al’s ethnic jokes play into the movie’s larger theme about outsiders trying to fit in—or not giving a damn about whether they fit in or not, as the case may be. (The Judge explicitly states this theme when he says, “Some people simply do not belong.”) As Al’s line about Bushwood being restricted makes clear, he’s well aware that folks like him stick out like a sore thumb there. His razzing of the D’Annunzios is a kind of expression of solidarity acknowledging that his presence at Bushwood is just as incongruous as theirs’ is.

9. The drug humor

Outside of the nudity, the other element of Caddyshack that most clearly stamps it as a product of the early 80s is the drug jokes. Indeed, drug humor was so prevalent between the mid-60s and the mid-80s that two comedy LPs of the early 70s, National Lampoon’s Radio Dinner and Robert Klein’s Mind over Matter, had references to “obligatory drug jokes.” As with the ethnic jokes, the drug jokes in Caddyshack serve a larger purpose towards the movies’ main theme. Smoking dope, as it turns out, is just about the only activity that both the rich kids and the poor ones at Bushwood have in common. Lou warns the caddies that he’s had complaints about them “smoking grass.” And, during the marina scene, we see Spaulding and his stoner pals passing around a doobie. (This, by the way, is the same joint that Dr. Beeper tries to cop a toke from before getting the shock of his life.)

Drug jokes also play a big part in the film’s only scene between Chase and Murray in which Ty “plays through” Carl’s squalid quarters while prepping for the big golf match the next morning. (A scene that Peters insisted on at the last minute after he realized that his two top-billed actors didn’t have any screen time together. So Ramis, Chase, and Murray hastily brainstormed some material over lunch and shot the entire scene that afternoon.) As Ty tries to find a way to hit his ball off of Carl’s leftover pizza slices back onto the green, Carl shows off his new grass hybrid, “a cross of bluegrass… uh… Kentucky bluegrass, featherbed bent, and Northern California sensemilia. The amazing stuff about this is that you can play 36 holes on it in the afternoon, take it home, and just get stoned to the bejeezus-belt that night on this stuff.” The scene’s funniest moment occurs when Ty starts coughing and gagging after reluctantly taking a drag off a monster blunt packed with Carl’s grass and Carl casually admits, “It’s a little harsh.”

10. The grand finale

The movie’s climax is a $20,000 per player team match (an amount that, eventually, swells to $80,000) pitting Ty and Al against the Judge and Dr. Beeper. Like the finales of so many slapstick comedies, it was mainly an excuse to tie up all the various loose ends and allow the good guys to triumph over the bad guys. Outside of a few isolated gags (Ty’s ball flies into the trees and is impaled on a crow’s beak), the match itself is not played for laughs. The real comedy in the movie’s conclusion is reserved for Carl’s preparations to go Defcon 1 on the gopher with plastic explosives molded into the shape of woodland animals like “the harmless squirrel and the friendly rabbit.” Instead, Ramis and his co-writers borrowed a page from the book of director Frank Capra and his most frequent collaborator, screenwriter Robert Riskin, and played the golf match for populist sentimentality. As the match gets underway, word spreads like wildfire throughout the club and, eventually, the entire support staff of Bushwood pours out onto the links in the hopes of finally seeing the Judge receive his well-deserved comeuppance. And when, at a crucial moment in the match, it seems as though that comeuppance won’t be forthcoming after all, the movie’s Dues Ex Machina arrives in the form of Carl’s detonating the homemade bombs he’s placed in the gopher’s tunnels. Which, since it was the Judge who ordered the extermination of the gopher in the first place, it would seem that, in the immortal words of William Shakespeare, he was “hoist with his own petard.”

Speaking of Master Will, with its wonderful variety of characters, situations, and intersecting romantic pairings, I’m seriously tempted to describe Caddyshack as Shakespearian, but out of deference to those people who’d interpret seeing the words Caddyshack and “Shakespearian” in the same sentence as irrefutable proof of the End of Civilization As We Know It, I’ll resist the temptation. Still, as Bushwood’s Hoi Polloi party triumphantly, let us recall the Bard’s memorable phrase, “If music be the food of love, play on.” Or as Al puts it, “Hey, everybody, we’re all gonna get laid!”




Man in the Dark Featured new

Savant 3-D Blu-ray Review: “Man in the Dark” (1953)

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When Arch Oboler’s Bwana Devil set off a stampede to promote 3-D as the savior of Hollywood, the first studio picture on screens was a Columbia quickie filmed in record time, on the cheap. Producer Wallace MacDonald had the 1936 amnesia-plastic surgery potboiler The Man Who Lived Twice reworked as a very lightweight noir thriller. Man in the Dark pulled in customers primed by the big publicity push being given 3-D. Warners’ House of Wax followed two days later, losing the race to be first but reaping much bigger returns.

The refurbished storyline drops the plastic surgery angle but retains the now- disturbing idea that doctors might use brain surgery to “cure” lawbreakers of criminal tendencies. Convicted criminal Steve Rawley (Edmond O’Brien) volunteers for the operation half-assuming that he’ll not survive. He awakes with total amnesia and a more cheerful personality. Under a new name, “Blake” actually looks forward to beginning life afresh tending the hospital’s hedges. Steve is instead kidnapped and beaten bloody by his old cronies in crime Lefty, Arnie and Cookie (Ted de Corsia, Horace McMahon & Nick Dennis), who want to know where Steve hid the loot from their last robbery. Steve remembers nothing, and kisses from his old girlfriend Peg Benedict (Audrey Totter) fail to extract the location of the $130,000. But weird dreams provide clues that might lead Steve and Peg to the money everyone is so desperate to possess.

Columbia chief Harry Cohn’s commitment to 3-D had its limits, as Man in the Dark is a real quickie distinguished only by its cast of noir icons. The adapted storyline is packed with somewhat limp ‘smart’ dialogue. Indicating how conscious writers of this time were of previous hardboiled thrillers. One speech even borrows a line about money “being a piece of paper with germs on it” from Edgar Ulmer’s Detour.

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Man in the Dark is sometimes listed as a sci-fi movie, owing to its notion of using surgery to correct criminal behavior. If that idea had been developed beyond gimmick status the movie might connect with later sci-fi efforts like A Clockwork Orange. As it is Dr. Marston (Dayton Lummis) merely succeeds in making a blank slate of Steve Rawley’s mind. It is just assumed that he’s no longer a crook. The doctor sees nothing wrong in wiping out the identity of a human being, but he does object to Rawley being questioned by the insurance investigator Jawald (creepy Dan Riss). Although one would think that Steve’s post-operative brain might be a little on the tender side, he suffers no ill effects from the beatings delivered by the sadistic Lefty.

Understandably disenchanted with his new/old cronies, Steve breaks free to get the missing moolah for himself. But can he remember where he left it? Peg Benedict thinks that he’s reverting to his wicked ways. The rather inconsistent Peg initially acts as a standard-issue femme fatale, seducing Steve to find a short cut to a big payday. Later, she accuses her former crook boyfriend of ‘being himself’ and starts complaining that since they’re in love they don’t need the money.

Some tension arises when Jawald’s detective proves to be just as slimy as the crooks — he’s perfectly happy to allow the dangerous fugitives to stay at large and pummel Steve, as long as they lead him to the cash. The subject of crime-fighting ethics is dropped like a hot rock, along with any and all questions about the exact nature of Steve’s brain operation. We instead get a few back-lot chases and a dream sequence in which Steve and a dozen cops pile into an amusement park ride. While an animated statue of a fat lady laughs, the hallucinated cops pull their guns and shoot at Steve at the same time.

The big finish — promised in all the ads — sends Steve on a wild roller coaster ride. It’s the famed Pacific Ocean Park Pier, whose massive wooden roller coaster can also be seen (from several of the exact same angles) in the same year’s The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. A big chase between Edmond O’Brien and Ted de Corsia’s stuntmen takes place on the rooftop of Columbia Studios at their old Sunset & Gower location. Look closely and you’ll spot the first two letters of the Hollywood Sign, and a few seconds later, the distinctive sign for the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel.

Director Lew Landers (Louis Friedlander) made his career by grinding out movies at a blistering pace, averaging about six features a year. The IMDB lists twelve Landers titles for 1942 alone! Landers’ direction of Man in the Dark hypes the 3-D by making sure that small objects are thrust into the camera at regular intervals — medical instruments, guns, spiders, a bird. Variety’s review called the 3-D effects the real reason to see the movie. That trade magazine’s coverage rather ungallantly suggests that “Miss Totter’s figure is a definite 3-D asset.” Reviewers made the same promises about the erotic potential of 3-D for their coverage of Universal’s It Came From Outer Space.

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Edmond O’Brien’s career as a leading man was winding down by this time, as was the enticing Audrey Totter’s tenure as a top noir siren. Both give solid pro performances, although the baddies Ted de Corsia (The Naked City, The Killing) and Nick Dennis (Kiss Me Deadly, Spartacus) are more fun to watch. The costumers give Dennis the cheesiest-looking striped suit imaginable, which with his wild shock of hair makes a perfect low-rent impression.

The Twilight Time Blu-ray + 3-D of Man in the Dark is a pristine transfer of this oddity, one of only two official films noir shot in the 3-D format. The Academy aspect ratio is correct and consistent with the April ’53 release date. An Isolated Score Track gives us the full effect of stock film music rearranged for a movie, rather than composed for it. The work of half a dozen composers blends together unobtrusively.

Twilight Time’s first 3-D offering is also a disc debut for Man in the Dark. The trailer included in the package is a teaser item hyping the special shoot as if it were the Manhattan Project. Edmond O’Brien addresses a sales pitch directly at the camera, just outside a stage where the “top secret” film is being shot.

The menu for the 3-D version encoded on the disc comes up only on 3-D disc players, otherwise the disc reverts to the fine-quality flat HD version. The 3-D effect is satisfying, although most shots are not as carefully designed for the process as they are in more expensive pictures. It is interesting that this Columbia show chooses to use a roller coaster ride as a way of showing off its 3-D depth — the year before, the initial This Is Cinerama launched the mad race to defeat Television by starting with a roller coaster ride. Audiences may not have felt the same jolt, however, as the roller coaster sequence is all done with 2-D rear projection.

Julie Kirgo’s liner notes detail the custom rig used to film Man in the Dark and add some thoughts about the use of 3-D in the dream sequences. This disc will be a sure sell to the owners of 3-D home theater equipment.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
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Man in the Dark

Blu-ray + 3D

Twilight Time

1953 / B&W / 1:37 flat Academy / 70 min. / Street Date January 21, 2014 / available through Screen Archives Entertainment / 29.95

Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly?
YES; Subtitles: English

Packaging: Keep case

Starring Edmond O’Brien, Audrey Totter, Ted de Corsia, Horace McMahon, Nick Dennis, Dayton Lummis, Dan Riss.

Cinematography Floyd Crosby

Film Editor Viola Lawrence

Musical Director Ross DiMaggio

Composers of Stock Music George Antheil, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, George Duning, Herman Hand, Paul Mertz, Ben Oakland, Hans J. Salter, Marlin Skiles.

Written by George Bricker, Jack Leonard, William Sackheim, from the 1936 film The Man Who Lived Twice by Tom Van Dycke & Henry Altimus

Produced by Wallace MacDonald

Directed by Lew Landers


Thunder Featured

Blu-ray Review: “Thunderbolt and Lightfoot” (1974)

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There seems little doubt that, 20 years from now, many of Clint Eastwood’s formula blockbusters, movies like The Gauntlet (1977), Every Which Way But Loose (1978), Firefox (1982), and all of the Dirty Harry sequels will gradually fade from public consciousness, while his more ambitious and unusual starring films – The Beguiled (1971), The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), Bronco Billy (1980) – will be reappraised as far more interesting works. Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974) belongs in this latter category. It’s a road movie-crime film with, for the time and its genre especially, surprisingly rich and offbeat characterizations. It’s also, contrastingly, brutally violent at times and features especially good action set pieces, particularly some dangerous-looking car stunts supervised by Carey Loftin (It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World). Eastwood alone gets his name above the title, but up-and-comer Jeff Bridges received most of the accolades, including an Academy Award nomination as Best Supporting Actor.

Eastwood’s Malpaso Company produced the film for release through United Artists, but the actor reportedly was unhappy with UA’s handling of the movie (though it still grossed a robust $25 million against its $4 million negative cost). He may have a point. Warner Bros., home to most of Eastwood’s filmography, aggressively releases and re-releases all of Eastwood’s movies, good and bad, while Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, part of the MGM library, has been released to DVD exactly once: in June 2000, in a widescreen but unenhanced video transfer. Despite the grossly outdated transfer, as I write this Amazon is currently selling new copies of this old DVD for $75.98. Huh? Why MGM has chosen to all but ignore probably the most internationally bankable star of the last half-century is a mystery.

But now, through Twilight Time, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot comes to Blu-ray and 1080p high-definition. Needless to say, it’s a vast improvement over the DVD, especially considering writer-director Michael Cimino’s and cinematographer Frank Stanley’s excellent, frame-filling Panavision compositions. The disc also includes an audio commentary and trailer.

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The movie starts with a literal bang as the sermon by a rural Idaho preacher (Eastwood, hair neatly slicked back and wearing bifocals) is interrupted by the shotgun blasts of Red Leary (George Kennedy), clearly gunning for the minister. Meanwhile, carefree young drifter Lightfoot (Bridges) steals a Trans Am right off the lot of a used car dealer (Gregory Walcott). Lightfoot and the preacher meet as the latter effects his escape from Leary, with the younger ne’er-do-well gradually recognizing the preacher as Thunderbolt, a fugitive bank robber who with muscle Leary, driver Eddie Goody (Geoffrey Lewis), and two others audaciously used a 20mm cannon to blast open a seemingly impenetrable vault and steal the $500,000 inside it.

Thunderbolt squirreled away the loot behind the blackboard of a one-room schoolhouse, but the two return there only to find a modern school built in its place. Leary and Goody eventually catch up to Thunderbolt and Lightfoot seeking revenge, all because Leary wrongly assumes Thunderbolt double-crossing everyone. Instead, Lightfoot convinces the others to simply break into the vault a second time, using the same cannon.

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Thunderbolt and Lightfoot came about after Michael Cimino impressed Eastwood with his cocky personality and rewrites on Magnum Force (1973), the second Dirty Harry movie. Eastwood generously acquiesced to first-time director Cimino’s desire to adapt his own script, though Eastwood reportedly was later annoyed by Cimino’s perfectionism and endless takes. (Cost-conscious Eastwood has one of the lowest shooting ratios in Hollywood, and during the making of the film Eastwood-as-producer often vetoed Cimino’s excesses.) While overlong at 114 minutes, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot’s screenplay is nevertheless far superior to Magnum Force and most of Eastwood’s ‘70s output.

In Thunderbolt and Lightfoot Eastwood is polar-opposite of his short-fused, grimly neo-fascist Dirty Harry, nor is he the reticent, brawling good ol’ boy of comedies like Every Which Way But Loose. Instead, here he’s unusually relaxed and even smiles broadly several times, Thunderbolt clearly amused by Lightfoot’s cocky, charming naïveté. It’s Lightfoot’s ambition to pull off a big heist that drive the plot, his childlike enthusiasm spurring the more experienced if aimless middle-aged career criminals.

That the heist becomes something as enjoyable as it is dangerous and even deadly is one of Thunderbolt and Lightfoot’s many unusual qualities. Like the slam-bang opening, Cimino’s idiosyncratic script is full of surprises. Amusingly, to stake their heist the four work minimum-wage jobs: Goody drives an ice cream truck, Leary works as a third-shift janitor at a department store guarded by man-eating Dobermans, etc.

In one of the best (if entirely tangential) scenes Thunderbolt and Lightfoot hitch a ride with what turns out to be a completely balmy driver (Bill McKinney) who keeps a caged raccoon in the passenger seat while his car’s trunk is packed to the gills with fluffy white bunny rabbits. (Cimino seems to have given Bridges especially room to improvise. One possible example of this is an exchange where Lightfoot accidentally puts his hand in some raccoon shit. Eastwood’s amused reaction doesn’t look rehearsed.)

Ultimately though, it’s the beguiling father-son like bonding among thieves Thunderbolt and Lightfoot that cements the picture, the former amused and paternal, fulfilling an unstated longing by the latter, eternally optimistic, for someone to look up to. Some read a gay subtext to Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, but really it draws on a tradition common to myriad B Westerns, with Bridges a Russell Hayden/Lucky Jenkins-type admirer to father figure William Boyd/Hopalong Cassidy.

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The 1080p transfer of this 2.35:1 Panavision production is excellent. The title elements are quite grainy, but overall the transfer is true and accurate with minimal manipulation. In high-def the careful framing and gorgeous rural Idaho and Montana locations really shine, while the 1.0 DTS-HD Master Audio maximizes the limitations of the mono audio. (Optional English subtitles are provided.)

Extras include Julie Kirgo’s observant liner notes, and she joins Lem Dobbs and Nick Redman on a somewhat meandering but okay audio commentary track. An original trailer is included, along with an isolated score track.


Jones Featured

Whatever Happened To Christopher Jones? (Part 1)

Chris Jones 1 Wild in the Streets“Christopher Jones, an heir apparent to James Dean who starred in such films as The Looking Glass War and Ryan’s Daughter before quitting show business at the height of his brief but dazzling career, has died. He was 72,” The Hollywood Reporter stated in his obituary on January 31, 2014.

I was touched by a shock of recognition and a sense of loss when this appeared on my Facebook page the next day, a feeling I rarely experience when reading about the deaths of far better known and more accomplished Hollywood figures.
I discovered Christopher Jones in the mid-’70s, thanks to a TV showing of Wild in the Streets. I was obsessed with James Dean at the time, and became transfixed by Jones, who seemed like the second coming of Dean and the answer to his fan’s prayers. Only later would I learn that Jones had already abandoned his career by the time I became aware of him.

“He had excitement. He was a movie star,” Quentin Tarantino said in a 1999 episode of E! True Hollywood Story. “He looked like James Dean, but Chris Jones didn’t take himself seriously like James Dean. He had the same exact sensuality and appeal as Jim Morrison. He was a big comer at that point, as big as anybody!”

Christopher Jones exploded into stardom with the July 1968 release of American International Pictures’ Wild in the Streets, where he played a 24-year-old rock star who manipulates the youth vote to become the President of the United States and sends everyone over 30 to concentration camps where they’re force fed LSD. “If you were a teenager in 1968, chances are good you would have given up just about anything to run Wild in the Streets with Christopher Jones,” the author of his website writes.

Jones quit acting after making only four more films after Wild in the Streets, becoming a charismatic enigma with a cult following. “Over the past 26 years, Jones has been the subject of so many rumors––that he was a drug addict, lived on the streets, became a hustler, had been confined in a mental institution––his disappearing act gave him, perversely, near legendary status among show-biz insiders,” Pamela Des Barres wrote in her introduction to a rare interview with him in 1996.

When Playboy magazine’s interviewer asked Jack Nicholson, “What is the downside of celebrity?” he said, “There is none.” Yet Jones gave up stardom, its rewards, and a ready-made audience, prompting us to ask: whatever happened to Christopher Jones?

Christopher Jones was born William Frank Jones on August 18, 1941 in Jackson, Tennessee, the younger son of father J. G. Jones and mother Robbie Jones. Billy and his brother Robert lived above a grocery store where their father clerked for Billy’s first three years. Robbie Jones, a talented artist plagued by mental instability, was committed to the state hospital in Bolivar, Tennessee in 1945, where she died in 1960. Jones had only one memory of his mother. “I can remember her picking me up once,” he said, “but I can’t remember what she looked like.”

While Robert remained with his father, Billy was sent to live with his aunt after his mother’s commitment. On her recommendation, their father sent his sons to Boys Town (then known as Gailor Hall) in Memphis, Tennessee, the orphanage where Billy resided until he was almost 16. Though he resisted such things as school uniforms and evinced no interest in academics, he displayed a talent for sketching that led Boys Town’s executive director, Joe Stockton, to arrange an art school scholarship for Billy.

In 1988, Robert Duke told journalist Michael Donahue that he became best friends with Billy after older boys forced them to fight each other for their entertainment, “like dogs or chickens. It was kind of cruel and mean, but that’s the way life was back then.”

“When you’re a long-term resident of an institution like that, you become institutionalized,” Duke said, providing an insight into Jones’ troubled personality. “You learn not to form relationships with people . . . You learn to be a loner. You learn emotionally not to become too vulnernable to relationships because they’re transient in most cases. I think Billy Frank was typical of that pattern.”

“Duke remembered Jones as moody, withdrawn and a loner,” Donahue reported. “He didn’t have many friends, and he idolized James Dean.”

Dean became Billy’s idol after a formative experience that influenced his ambition to pursue acting. Joe Stockton called Billy into his office one hot summer day. “I must have been 14 or 15 years old at the time and I was sure I was going to be punished for something,” Jones later recalled. “Instead, the man handed me a copy of Life magazine with a photo of James Dean on the cover. After a long silence he said, ‘You know Billy, you look just like this guy!’ and as I studied the picture, he sat staring at me. I saw a resemblance, although I’d never seen a picture of James Dean before.”

“Dean had a sophisticated subtlety about him and although people have always compared me to him, at the time I would have preferred to be thought of as more flashy, like Elvis,” Jones said. “After seeing Love Me Tender [1956] and East of Eden [1955] at about the same time, I realized how brilliant James Dean was. I’ve always been torn between the two role models though.”

Billy’s fascination with Dean intensified after he read an article about his fatal car accident. “Sometimes I feel like James Dean’s avenger . . . maybe I’m a continuation of the whole thing,” he later said. “A piece of the puzzle’s gone, because Dean was too wild and had an accident, but he was the real thing. Most people are afraid to die––and that’s what makes you the real thing, whether you’re afraid to die. Dean was something divine, like no actor before or since. I’m fascinated with death. That kind of death.”

When Jones’ star began ascending in the mid-’60s, stories about him made the inevitable comparisons to James Dean. Jones’ story resonates with similarities to Dean’s life as well as that of Cal, the character he played in East of Eden.

Dean’s father sent his son to live with his aunt and uncle after the death of his mother from uterine cancer when he was nine. He felt like an orphan, and had a strained adult relationship with his father, who didn’t support his ambition to be an actor.
“My mother died on me when I was a kid, and I used to cry on her grave and say, ‘Why did you leave me?,’” Dean told Dennis Hopper. “And that changed into, ‘I’m gonna show you! I’m gonna be great!’”

“I wasn’t close with him,” Jones said of his father. “He was six foot something––not like me––and looked just like Paul Newman, with ice blue, cold-blooded killer eyes. I went to live with him when I was 16 and he signed me into the Army.” He didn’t resent his father for casting him off. “No, I loved him. I love him still. Did you ever see East of Eden?” Jones said that he hated his mother for dying on him, evidently unaware as a child that she was alive but institutionalized. “That was a good reason to hate her. She shouldn’t have died.”

Jones escaped from Boys Town when he was 15, taking up with a married 18-year-old woman with two children in Memphis, Tennessee, who he said was the sexual aggressor in their relationship. “From then on, I expected it. Women liked me, probably because I didn’t have a mother. I lived with my 18-year-old [lover]––she was separated from her husband––and then I just left her, up and walked out.” He repeated this pattern with other women throughout his life.

His father remarried and fathered three children while his first two sons remained at Boys Town, only joining him for rare holiday visits. Jones attempted to reunite with his father after abandoning his teenage girlfriend, living with him until he enlisted  in the Army when he turned 16.

Jones’ life was rife with dysfunctional relationships and family tragedies. “My dad, who rode around on a Harley-Davidson, picked up a beautiful 18-year-old girl,” he said. “They were very close, but he killed her on his Harley. Shaved the top of her head right off. When he died, in 1963, they buried him right next her to her.”

If that wasn’t enough, Timothy Roman, who Jones claimed was his son, fatally bludgeoned his mentally disturbed mother, actress Susan Cabot, in 1986.” “I had only seen him once in my life,” Jones said. “She had told him his father was an Englishman––Ryan’s Daughter, right? [where he played a British officer]–– and that I was dead.” Why? “We’d only been together three weeks. Then I sort of disappeared.”

Though studio biographies claimed Jones stayed in the Army for two years before deserting, he went AWOL after only two days. He stole a car and drove to New Orleans, then headed to New York with a friend, making sure to include a pilgrimage to James Dean’s grave and boyhood home in Fairmount, Indiana. Dean’s aunt and uncle, the Winslows, who welcomed––or at least tolerated––visits from Dean’s acolytes, must have done a triple take when they opened their front door and saw Jones, who bore a striking similarity to Dean. “I went up to his room. His jeans were laid out on the bad like he was coming back.” For a moment, maybe the Winslows thought he had.

Acting was not yet a glimmer in Jones’ mind. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” he said. “Someone who knew I was AWOL said, ‘Turn yourself in. It’ll catch up with you sooner or later.’ So I did, and spent six months on Governors Island, close to the Statue of Liberty. It was . . . prison. A guard made a pass at me.”

Jones found refuge with the head buyer for a local department store whose husband was in prison for selling marijuana. “She looked just like Marilyn Monroe. Man, was I in love!” He studied painting and sculpting with artist Edward Melcarth, working as his apprentice. He immersed himself in learning artistic technique, but was ultimately drawn to acting.

Jones met an actor who introduced him to director Frank Corsaro, a teacher at the Actors Studio who had been a friend and mentor to James Dean. He adopted his stage name of Christopher Jones (the same name as the captain of the Mayflower) and began auditing classes at the Actors Studio.

“He was a very on and off again student who had a kind of personal charisma,” Corsaro recalled. “He drew very well. He was rather impecunious at the time so I gave him a scholarship of sorts. He was like Dean––he had very good instincts, he had a natural kind of sense of acting. As with Dean, he was not really ultimately as disciplined in the work. He took it as a measure that he deserved it, given his own sense of ease with acting but not as a committed student. Neither was Dean a very committed student at the Actors Studio. In fact, he did very little work there. He just picked up what he could and was in the right atmosphere and with Christopher it was the same case and that’s where Shelley [Winters] kind of took an interest in him and she really gave him his boost.”

Corsaro cast Jones as one of two Mexican cabana boys (James Farentino played the other) in his 1961 Broadway production of Tennessee Williams’ The Night of the Iguana, which initially starred Bette Davis. Every night after the show closed, Shelley Winters, who replaced Davis, got into her Jaguar and tooled around New York with Jones and Farentino, enjoying the nightlife. Sometimes they were joined by actor Alex Cord (christened Alex Viespi). Jones claims he and Winters had an affair. “Of course. She was all over me like a cheap suit.” [In the second volume of her autobiography, Winters reveals her relationship with Cord, but never mentions having one with Jones.]

Jones got his first role playing a member of a street gang in an episode of the TV series East Side, West Side (1963-1964), starring George C. Scott. “He kept telling me to stand still,” Jones recalled. “I kept fidgeting in the scene and Scott put his foot on top of mine when the director yelled ‘Action!’ So, I couldn’t move during the scene.”

While hanging out with Shelley Winters at Downey’s, a New York restaurant that was a watering hole for the show business crowd, Jones implored her to introduce him to Susan Strasberg, the daughter of Lee Strasberg, head of the Actors Studio. Winters refused, telling him, “I don’t like the way you treat your girlfriends.“ In her autobiography, she recalls Jones saying, “That’s Susan Strasberg. I’m going to marry her.” He told Pamela Des Barres that he said, “I’m going to fuck her.”

He entered into a tumultuous relationship and marriage with Strasberg that she related in detail in her 1980 memoir Bittersweet. Strasberg recalled her first sight of Jones at Downey’s. “We talked for a few minutes and she [Winters] introduced me to Christopher. He had medium brown hair streaked with gold, deep brown eyes, high cheekbones, and a bowed sensual mouth. He was wearing a shirt unbuttoned to the waist, skintight faded jeans, and although it was freezing outside, a lightweight leather jacket.”

In Bittersweet, she describes a memorable incident that took place one time when she and her brother were joined at their parent’s Fire Island beach house by Jerry and Marta Orbach, actor Richard Bradford, Frank Corsaro and a group of his students, including Jones.

“There was a thunderstorm that night. It was terrifying, yet beautiful. Christopher tore off his shirt and ran onto the beach into the pelting rain. ‘I’m going swimming,’ he called. ‘You’re crazy, come back inside . . . it’s not safe,’ we implored him. Instead, he began to do a rhythmic, erotic dance between the flashes of lightning. It was as if in the eye of the storm he became the storm itself. And, like it, appeared both beautiful and dangerous [emphasis added].”

According to Strasberg, Jones was envious of anyone who enjoyed a comfortable upbringing. “I grew up in a shack with outdoor plumbing and a coal stove,” he told her. “Hell, in Tennessee that meant you were poor white trash.” Jones once tried to bait Lee Strasberg into an argument. “They’re out to destroy anyone who’s too alive,” he said. “But they can kiss my ass. I’ll get them before they get me.” He looked around at Strasberg’s book-covered walls. “You can’t learn anything about life from a book,” he said. “Nietzsche said, ‘We can only find freedom and happiness, without thought, without intellect, through pure will,’ he paraphrased. “It’s all a power play . . .”

“Christopher, here as in New York, didn’t like my friends,” she wrote. “Hell, they’re too square and uptight, too intellectual,” he said. She claimed that he convinced her to take mescaline and other drugs. “You’ve got to cut loose from all your tight-assed, conventional crap,” he told her. “I wanted so much to be loved unreservedly, for myself, that I was willing to pay any price including subservience,” she wrote. “But if I said no when something was offered, I became the enemy, and because I still desperately wanted to be accepted, even by people I did not care about, I never refused. After a while, I didn’t want to. Alone at home or while working, I never took anything or missed it. The drugs were a bond between Christopher, myself, and our peers. My addiction was emotional, not physical. I had drifted onto a merry-go-round that did not stop. And as always, the only self-discipline I had left was in relation to my work.”

Jones later admitted to hitting Strasberg and accidentally discharging a shotgun in their apartment, but he disputes her nightmarish characterization of their relationship, including her claims that he forced her to indulge in a drug-laden lifestyle. “She’s lyin’ like a dog,” he told Pamela Des Barres. “She just wanted to be in with the scene. She’s so square.”

He told Des Barres that he sampled amphetamines, marijuana and LSD, but claims that he disliked their effects. “And I hated acid,” he said. “I swear, I did not take drugs. The hippies were interested in that stuff. I was interested in Ferraris, women and clothes. I was mainly interested in fucking––and in becoming famous.”

In late November1963, Jones and Strasberg accepted their friends Jerry and Marta Orbach’s invitation to drive out to California. Strasberg supported Jones until he landed the starring role in the TV series The Legend of Jesse James, produced by Don Siegel. In his autobiography, Siegel, who directed the series’ half-hour pilot, called Jones, “a disturbed young man,” but did not elaborate. Jones’ success exacerbated his rebellious behavior. One of the puff pieces printed about him headlined the quote, “I don’t give a damn what anybody says about me.” Publicists often plant these statements to give their client the appearance of integrity, but it fit Jones. He showed up late for a TV Guide interview about his TV series and off-handedly called it “garbage.”

“Mr. Chris Jones, who plays the late Mr. James as if he were a three-way cold tablet comprising equal parts of the late Mr. James Dean, the present Mr. Marlon Brando, and a difficult teen-age girl,” TV Guide’s critic, Cleveland Amory, wrote in his review of the show. Jones’ show generated an outpouring of fan letters from female fans, some explicit enough to shock his wife. The series, filmed at 20th Century-Fox, aired on ABC for only one season from September 1965 to May 1966, before falling victim to the ratings competition from The Lucy Show on CBS and Dr. Kildare on NBC.

Chris Jones 2 Jesse James castWhile movie offers poured in for him, Jones’ relationship with Strasberg deteriorated. She alleged that he alternated unpredictably between tenderness and sudden explosions of paranoid jealousy, when he would pummel her face and body with his fists, punishing her for the infidelities he imagined she engaged in. One evening in their apartment, after she tried to flee their moving car, he pointed the Colt revolver he played Russian roulette with at her and said, “I could shoot you.” She closed her eyes and heard the report of his gun. The bullet tore apart her prized English Regency desk. “You have to learn to trust me,” he told her.

Strasberg discovered that she was pregnant just when she had finally decided to leave him. The couple married in Las Vegas on September 25, 1965. She gave birth to her daughter, Jennifer, on March 14, 1966.

In August, Jones began making his first film, Chubasco (1968), on the Warner Bros. lot. One day, early into production, Strasberg received a frantic call at home from the film’s director, Allen Miner. “Susan, Christopher is acting a little rambunctious with the girls we’ve been testing. He hit the last one when he kissed her. He is balking at doing the love scenes.”

She reluctantly agreed to take the role. She divorced Jones after Chubasco was finished. He fought her for custody of their daughter. Strasberg claimed he harassed her enough to compel her to obtain a restraining order against him. Jones’ tempestuous relationship with her set a pattern he was to repeat throughout the remainder of his life with other women.

Jones plays the eponymous character in Chubasco, a rebellious youth who agrees to straighten up and fly right by working as a spotter on a tuna boat. He eventually marries his pregnant girlfriend Bunny (Strasberg), the daughter of the boat’s skipper (Richard Egan), in a sanitized Mexican whorehouse presided over by a madame played by Ann Sothern. Though Chubasco contains a scene between Jones and a benevolent judge (Edward Binns) that takes place in his office and another where he writhes in pain after injuring his hands that evoke similar scenes in Rebel Without a Cause, it’s an unmemorable movie. “I didn’t think it [casting Strasberg as his girlfriend] was too good of an idea and the movie wasn’t that great, but it paid for a house with a pool in Beverly Hills,” Jones said.

Wild in Streets Poster Vertical MediumJones next film, Wild in the Streets (1968) gave him his breakout role.

Next Time: Wild in the Streets, The Looking Glass War, Ryan’s Daughter, and Jones’s sudden and mysterious decline. 

Peter Winkler is the author of Dennis Hopper: The Wild Ride of a Hollywood Rebel (Barricade Books, 2011).

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Special Report: The Decline of Physical Media and the Rise of Illegal Torrents

Almost one year ago Stephen Bowie and Stuart Galbraith IV, on their respective blogs, began debating the aesthetic issues of watching movies via streaming video versus physical media like DVD and Blu-ray. That conversation, which you can read HERE and HERE, happily prompted a lot of good dialogue all over the Net where how one watches film is nearly as important as what one watches.

And, now, the conversation continues with a chat focusing on the subjects of bootleg videos and illegal torrents, as well as the related but fiendishly complex issue of once copyright protected movies gradually lapsing into the public domain, and whether this is good or bad for consumers.  

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪Let’s start with the issue of buying bootleg videos. I think we’re pretty much on opposite sides of the fence on this issue, as well as the related notion of downloading/streaming movies officially unavailable.

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪Well, first of all, buying a bootleg is something I’m a lot less inclined to do than possessing a bootleg.

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪How do you mean?

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪Because that does mean there’s a middleman who isn’t a rights holder but is making a profit anyway. I’ll only fill that person’s pockets if I’m pretty desperate to see something. I couldn’t do what I do, as a TV historian, without being heavily reliant on non-commercially released copies of shows. ‪Isn’t that also true of Japanese films for you? Let’s say there’s a private torrent site that contains a whole bunch of fan-subtitled Japanese films that you can’t purchase legally. Would you or would you not avail yourself of those? Would it make a difference if it was for “work” vs. pleasure viewing?

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪I think needing access to movies/TV shows as a researcher is an entirely different issue. When, for instance, I was writing my Kurosawa/Mifune book, many of their films, particularly Mifune’s, weren’t available through normal channels. I ended up buying Hong Kong DVDs, for instance, Japanese DVDs sans English subtitles, and in some cases rented bootleg VHS tapes from Japanese rental stores in LA’s Little Tokyo and elsewhere. I’d rather fend for myself accessing what I’d need through rental shops here in Japan and, when necessary, going through official channels and viewing those titles I’d need to see through archives. ‪What I’d like to address is from the perspective of the ordinary consumer fed up that, for instance, Disney won’t release Song of the South, which has opened an underground market for that title.

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪Okay. And your response to that, from the consumer’s viewpoint, is what? “I guess I’m SOL then” and that’s the end of it?

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     Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪Well, first off I believe Disney will get around to Song of the South eventually. The mighty dollar supersedes political correctness any day. Over time labels have gotten around these issues with (for my money, overly PC disclaimers and warnings), driven by legal concerns more than anything else.

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪But that’s sidestepping the issue a bit. Are you arguing that someone curious about Song of the South would be wrong to avail him/herself of a pirated copy?

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪From a historical and artistic perspective, it absolutely should be released. Besides, my argument with regards to that film is that Uncle Remus is smarter and wiser than all the white people in that movie. It’s no better or worse than a hundred other Hollywood movies from the 1940s, and certainly the racial stereotypes are far more offensive in Gone with the Wind.

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪Still doesn’t answer my question, though.

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪No. I myself have a copy that was given to me as a gift. I haven’t watched it, partly because the picture quality isn’t where I want it to be. However, of the handful of bootlegs I have, all I’d gladly replace with legitimately purchased copies when and if those become available. But I don’t think that’s the case with those who rely on torrent sites for 50-100% of what they watch.

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪Right. That’s closer to the way I feel. My own primary concern about bootlegs is aesthetic — I’d rather wait and see if a remastered copy comes out somewhere. I even dumped TCM, finally, after deciding that even a recording straight off the air didn’t pass my quality check. Most of those were piling up unwatched in the hope of a legit release.

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪With regards to your SOL comment, I think part of the problem is that many folks today want instant gratification. Old fogey me, I remember if you wanted to watch, say, Touch of Evil, what you did was buy TV Guide every week and hope, pray, that sometime over the next 6-9 months one of the 6-7 VHF and UHF channels would air it, and hopefully not at 3:00 am! For me the current state of home video is an embarrassment of riches. It’s positively amazing that so many obscure titles are easily accessible. Sure, there are a bunch I’d love to watch RIGHT NOW that are presently unavailable, but I have no doubt a good percentage of those will turn up sometime over the next year or two. I don’t mind waiting. A good measurement of that is DVD Savant’s Wish List. It was huge 10 years ago, but something like 80% of those titles are now available in some form.

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪And I know collectors who yell at me for not having taped, say, The Wackiest Ship in the Army when it ran on CBN in 1984. The fact that my age was in the single digits at the time doesn’t buy me much sympathy.

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪Even those folks who have been complaining for years about George Lucas’s suppression of the first theatrical versions of the original Star Wars trilogy probably won’t have much longer to wait, now that he’s been bought out by Disney.

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪Or: I spend 20 years and a lot of money hunting down some rare TV show, and now it’s on YouTube. Any tool who wants can see it in three seconds. It’s infuriating, but that doesn’t have much bearing on the state of things now.

   Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪Another thing: I’d bet many of those loudest bellyachers probably have a huge stack of unwatched DVDs and Blu-rays stacked up, gathering dust. Why not look at those while you’re waiting?

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪Look, I agree with that in general: Like you, I’ve had so much stuff to watch during the DVD era that for the most part (aside from my area of specialty, which is a big exception), I haven’t needed to go outside the proper channels to find stuff to watch.But: One reason I felt like this was a natural extension of our conversation last year is that the shift from physical media to streaming changes this equation.‪ If the market is tilting away from the possibility of a consumer legally purchasing (as opposed to streaming / “renting”) a copy of a movie, does that alter the ethics of bootlegging?

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪I think that shift hasn’t so far stopped the flow of new and interesting releases, for one thing. Sure, if DVD and Blu-ray and all other physical media came to a full stop, that might change the rules. But that hasn’t happened. DVD and Blu-ray have been “dead” for several years, supposedly. I don’t see that now or in the immediate future. What I do think bootlegging and torrents are doing is having some, probably unmeasurable, impact on marginal titles. If everyone who wants a copy has one on their hard-drive already, what’s the point in releasing it to Blu-ray, DVD, or as a MOD?

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪I’ll bet they are cannibalizing the same niche audience that small indie home video labels need. Which is a problem. Well, then, take it as a hypothetical, or look at some of the isolated instances where it’s true now. For instance, Criterion’s Hulu channel. Even if that’s not a dumping ground for films they don’t plan on releasing on disc (which it seems to be), it’ll take them 20 years to get to all of them. And while I can stream those if I want to (which I don’t), in Japan, you can’t. Don’t you feel the impulse to have someone make copies of those rare Japanese films? Would you ever feel justified in doing so?

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪Well, I found ways around accessing the U.S. version of Hulu while still paying for the service. But if I couldn’t, probably, no, I wouldn’t ask somebody to burn a BD-R for me just because I want to see something. For research purposes, probably yes. I suppose the bigger question is: By dumping titles they’ve licensed on Hulu, is Criterion damaging the financial incentive to eventually release those titles to DVD and/or Blu-ray?

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪That’s a good question. Yes, I suspect that Criterion starting that Hulu channel was a tacit admission that most of those films wouldn’t get a disc release, and so they wouldn’t be cutting into that revenue. But I do see a lot of people on movie forums talking about streaming a film to see if they like it and then if they do, buying a copy. For me that’s backwards — I’ll always seek out the best copy possible for a first viewing, even if it means blind-buying a Blu-ray of a movie I might hate. But it may be that for others streaming and disc purchases aren’t mutually exclusive.

     Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪As the author of a recent piece here on WCP bemoaning the lack of Jacques Rivette titles on home video, would you pay money to obtain those unreleased titles as bootlegs or torrents, and if so would you then re-purchase them should they come to DVD or Blu-ray?

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    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪It’s true that Milestone and a few other small labels have publicly said they’ve dropped plans to release films for which they have the rights because they’ve already been heavily pirated. So that’s not completely immeasurable. It’s really frustrating but, at the same time, still sort of an isolated example. I mean, I’m not going to download a Lionel Rogosin film now because Milestone is working on his stuff, and it’s probably reasonable to wait on almost anything that could come out via Warner Archive. But a ’30s Paramount title? I wouldn’t counsel anyone to hold their breath on that. ‪Would I purchase the unavailable Rivette titles from a bootlegger now? No. But, that’s what I was getting at earlier — I wouldn’t have to. These days it happens anonymously on the Internet rather than via one-on-one contact, but I could essentially “trade” for custom-subtitled rips of French DVDs. I’m not in a huge hurry to do that, but I would also have no compunction about it. For instance: I recently borrowed a gigantic set of Portuguese DVDs of Manoel de Oliveira’s films from a friend. There were three or four Oliveiras I hadn’t that weren’t in the set or weren’t subtitled so, yes, I did indeed acquire non-commercial copies of those so that I could drop them in chronologically.

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪Technology-unsavvy me asks, “What exactly are you trading?” in terms of technology? And how do you make each other’s needs known?

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪I don’t want to give away too many trade secrets (and I don’t know many, because I’ve only dipped a toe into this world), but essentially there are private, invitation-only websites where cinephiles upload rare stuff that others can then download as a digital file. In some cases the standards of commercial unavailability, and image quality, are quite high.

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪Hmm. This sounds like the 21st century version of secretive hoarders of 35mm prints in the old days! In any case I’m guessing we’re talking about numbers too tiny to have any major impact on even the niche catalog marketplace.

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪Exactly. Also, I believe you mentioned a kind of pool where you and some others commissioned subtitles for rare Japanese films, 20 years ago? Perhaps you can say more about that, but custom-subtitling is one of the factors that drives this underground community, and I think it’s one of the things that makes it ethically defensible.

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪Yes, well. Around the time I was researching and writing about Japanese fantasy films – this being something like 22 years ago – none of the original Japanese-language versions of these films were available in the U.S. officially. Local TV markets had stopped running them, and the only licensed versions were panned-and-scanned, dubbed into English, and often heavily recut from their original versions. Gradually some of the films became available on VHS by people who’d obviously obtained Japanese laserdisc versions (for the most part) and then had them subtitled privately. Eventually I learned the main dealer doing this was making so much money that he was able to fly First Class to Tokyo several times a year (a $5,000 ride) on all the dough he was making. Fans didn’t care. They just wanted to see the movies. I, however, got to know many of the original filmmakers – directors, screenwriters, composers, actors, etc. – people who’d normally be entitled to royalties from their studios had these movies been legitimately licensed. Clearly this guy was getting rich while the people who actually made those movies got nothing. There was a time before that when I was invited in to a small, private group (mostly fellow researchers) that would all chip in to have these movies privately subtitled. In that case most or all of us already purchased the Japanese laserdisc of the titles in question, so this was, to my mind, merely a self-financed supplement to that experience.

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪Well, I started to say that I don’t care if some douchebag gets rich if the end result is wider availability for the art; it’s incidental. Then the second part of your comment makes that seem heartless! But at the time, you have to admit, English-language licensing of those films had to seem extremely unlikely. I can only counter with my own experience, is that often people who made TV in the 50s and 60s ask me, “How did you see that?” And only one or two have then gotten annoyed that I had a copy of some never-released show that they helped to create; dozens, however, have asked me to send them one, because they didn’t have it themselves.

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    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪That’s the thing: Back in the early 1990s it seemed very unlikely that any Japanese fantasy films would ever be released in the west in their original form, except maybe the 1954 Gojira. Nor did I think I’d ever get the chance to see any of the original Cinerama travelogues from the 1950s unless I trekked several hundred miles to John Harvey’s custom-built Cinerama theater in Dayton, Ohio. Now, of course, virtually everything is available, on its way, or under consideration.

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪Dave Kehr would kick you out of Movieland for writing that! There was more available on 16mm in 1975 than there is on DVD now! Don’t you know that?

   Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪I do think Kehr may be right about classical Hollywood films on 16mm in the ’70s, but that gap, if true, is certainly narrowing. Also, to rent (not buy) a 16mm print from a distributor was comparatively expensive, anywhere from, say, $40-$200, just to rent a print for a couple of days. ‪I do want to address a related issue, the fact that we may be entering a new age in which classic films from the 1930s may fall into public domain, most famously Disney’s early cartoon shorts, but also everything from King Kong and All Quiet on the Western Front to Warner Bros. gangster movies and Fred Astaire musicals, etc. Some argue this is a good thing, that it will free-up long unreleased titles. What do you think?

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    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪First off, I think you’ll see new legislation that extends corporate copyrights before huge swaths of sound films start going PD. That’s one reason why I’m provisionally pro-piracy in some circumstances: because big corporations (not the artists who work for them) have been writing US copyright law in recent years. But, generally, no, I think we’ve seen that public domain status does no favors for a medium as technically complex as cinema (or television). ‪I don’t pretend to have all the details figured out, but I’ve always said that the only way to pry the gems loose from the studio vaults is to create some kind of tax incentive for making that stuff commercially available. Obviously a non-starter in the current anti-NEA, anti-arts political climate (although who knows, maybe the corporate handout aspect would have some traction).

   Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪Exactly. As someone who’s worked with home video departments in various capacities, I’m aware of exactly how expensive it is to store and maintain film elements, to create a new video master, etc. If, say, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs suddenly became available from any and every PD outfit for five bucks, Disney would have zero incentive to ever remaster it again. I’d hate to live in a 2040 world where everyone was watching movies all mastered before 2014. As for private funding, to some extent that’s been happening for years. Hugh Hefner has facilitated the restoration of many films through his projects at the UCLA Film & Television Archive and elsewhere. And as much as people gripe about DVD-R programs, it’s an avenue in which studios have found a way (well, some have, MGM’s is DOA) to make obscure, extremely niche titles that probably sell a couple hundred units cost-effective.

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪There are a lot of Universal TV shows trapped in that kind of limbo now: The existing tape masters burned in the vault fire a few years ago, and no licensee is ever going to be able to afford to retransfer from the negatives. So your only shot at seeing BJ and the Bear at this point is old syndicated broadcasts posted on YouTube, basically. No, I’m very schizoid when it comes to the studios: If they’re taking good care of stuff and releasing it commercially, I’m their best friend. If they’re neglecting it, fuck ‘em: I’ll “steal” it.

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪Of course, with TV there’s the problem of volume. It’s easier for Warner Bros. or Sony to remaster an hour-long Buck Jones Western and market it to hard-core B-Western fans with a $19.98 SRP than it is to take a chance on a 30-year-old TV show with 150 50-minute episodes.

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪Yes. Although many distributors have found a way to do that on DVD, and in fact I think Time-Life and Shout! may have realized that “complete series” box sets are in some cases more marketable than a slow trickle of the same series. However, that may also explain how you and I are coming from different places here. As a TV guy, it’s always been up to me to acquire what I want to see, either by recording reruns or from collectors. Only in the last 10 years has it been possible to buy more than a handful of old TV shows.

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪Clearly, also, emerging computer technologies are making previously prohibitive projects, like the reconstruction of It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World possible. Twenty years ago the same work might easily have cost ten times what they were able to bring that title in for.

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪There, you see the kind of thing this demon technology can spawn? Shudder.

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪Yes, and also content-starved media like Hulu I’m sure is driving TV (and film) availability like never before. The damnedest TV shows seem to be turning up on Hulu.

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪Actually, I’m mildly surprised that streaming hasn’t liberated more old shows. Researching my David E. Kelley piece, for instance, I found that only early seasons of The Practice, Picket Fences, and Chicago Hope were on Hulu; presumably, only what had been remastered for potential DVD releases (most of which didn’t materialize). Warner streams a few shows (e.g., Hawaiian Eye) where they can’t clear music rights for whole season disc releases, and some recent shows that didn’t get a disc release (like Rubicon) will show up on Amazon or Netflix. But I’ve yet to see a motherlode that didn’t also appear on DVD.‪ I don’t think, in other words, that streaming is really driving that side of the home video business … which may be a good thing. I don’t know.

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪As a resident of Manhattan, I want to ask you about the bootleg scene in NYC and how that’s changed, and also if you ever checked “specialty” dealers in, say, Spanish or Chinese neighborhoods.

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪I’ve done a little bit of that, but because ethnic video stores are targeting native speakers, there’s a limit on how much I can infiltrate them. I used to live in a neighborhood with some Indian video stores, but couldn’t make heads or tails of the DVDs in there. You may remember that I came to you for help when I found a cheap, very well-stocked Japanese video store in midtown. ‪In that case, I ended up printing out box art from Amazon Japan and other websites in order to find some of the few Japanese DVDs that had English subtitles. And I did find most of the Juzo Itami and Hiroshi Shimizu films that aren’t available here. But … once I started renting, I realized that most (though not all) of the rental copies had been replaced with bootlegged copies! So, even though Japan is not one of the countries we generally associate with video piracy, there you have it.

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪I find places like that fascinating. In Los Angeles I used to frequent Hong Kong and Chinese places recommended by Hong Kong cinephile Jeff Briggs, partly for those movies but also because they sometimes sold LDs or VCDs (and, later, DVDs) of obscure Japanese movies. There was a time, for instance, where the only way to see some of Kurosawa’s early films with English subtitles was via Hong Kong DVDs and VCDs.

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪Well, at one point I counted, and I have directly ordered DVDs from over 15 different countries!

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪I think generally immigrant neighborhoods of all nationalities tend to do this, less so classic films and more often tapes of ordinary network prime time shows shipped to the States for homesick emigrants.

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪That’s interesting. That Japanese store did have a lot of JP (and Korean) TV shows, and many US films & TV shows, which would’ve been cheaper for me to rent there than from a regular video store … if they’d been the real thing! And understand, my objection to those bootlegs was aesthetic as well as moral, because they’d been compressed from dual to single layer in most cases. Fortunately the Itami discs were the originals, for some reason.

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ There was a time when in, say, Times Square, you could openly buy bootleg copies of the very latest movies, as in within a day of their theatrical premiere and even before, usually taped by a guy sitting in a theater with a camcorder. (Seinfeld did an episode all about this.) Does that sort of thing still exist today?

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪I was thinking about that — yes, I still see the guys on the sidewalk with the blankets full of $5 pirated DVDs, though not as often. And I’m assuming they’re downloading those off the internet, not infiltrating a theater with a camcorder. Backing up one medium: When 35mm gave way to DCP, it took out the key ingredient in the experience of going to movie theaters for me. Yes, you still have the size and the shared audience experience … but I realized that what mattered most to me was that photochemical quality of celluloid. Without that, I lost the motivation to go to the cinema, and shifted most of that viewing to my home theater….

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪Same here….‎ ‪So, onto my last point: What’s the scene going to be like five years from now? Will torrents and downloads, legal and illegal, kill DVD and Blu-ray for good?

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪It’s not quite as dire, but in the same way, I feel like I would at least partially reject streaming video if it were to supplant physical media as the dominant delivery mode for home video. And what follows from that, naturally, is what do I do next? That has caused me to adjust my thinking about piracy somewhat.‪ Not because I feel entitled to free stuff (which is why many people download movies illegally) but because I do feel entitled to keep a movie in perpetuity if I purchase it, and to own a physical copy. Or am I not entitled to that, ethically? What do you think?

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    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪So then, almost bringing this full circle, yours is predominately cautious measure while I see no immediate end to this party, content that new DVD and Blu-ray titles will continue to flow in the foreseeable future, maybe not in exactly the way we’d like it all the time, but with enough new interesting stuff to keep me more than busy for the time being.

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪I don’t think I really have a prediction as to how fast things will change, but I think it’s clear that (1) there’s less demand for physical media, and that DVD & Blu-ray are evolving into a boutique market (like vinyl); and that (2) the rental market was a “bubble” that’s almost gone, and the future of consuming movies will mainly be a choice between buying or stealing. So, again, I ask it directly: If the choices are between streaming legally and acquiring a superior copy of it extralegally, what would you choose? In that future, would you censure cinephiles for congregating around private torrent sites?

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪I think I’ve always been pretty clear on this point: As long as physical media exists for me that trumps even legal streaming, let alone poor quality bootlegs. I think where we disagree is about the speed and certainty about it going away for the most part or completely. Should it go away completely then, I suppose, all bets are off. It may come to that eventually but not, I don’t believe, anytime in the next five or six years.

     Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪Yes, I think that’s true in terms of the time frame. It’s even possible that I should be more worried about being able to buy another plasma TV when the time comes than about finding discs to watch on it.

 

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Walter Mitty and Other Daydreamers

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947), a Technicolor musical comedy produced by Samuel Goldwyn, casts Danny Kaye as an imaginative editor of pulp books. It is not my favorite Kaye vehicle. I recommend that, if you are in the mood for a good double feature, you get your hands on DVD’s of Kaye’s Wonder Man (1945) and The Court Jester (1956). But, even though the various elements of Mitty never cohere, the film provides a number of entertaining scenes that make it worth a spin on your DVD player.

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Critics have never had a problem summarizing the plot of Mitty in a few words. It is the story of “a daydreaming everyman” or “a little man with big dreams.”  But, despite the great popularity of the James Thurber short story on which the film was based, the Mitty character was not the original daydreamer protagonist. It was not uncommon in early comedy films to have a drudge let their thoughts drift off and imagine themselves in a fantastic situation. This was certainly the case with a 1914 Essanay comedy called Sweedie and the Hypnotist. Sweedie (Wallace Beery in drag) is a scrub woman in a theatre. Sweedie takes a break from sweeping to watch a hypnotist (Leo White) perform on stage and soon finds herself lulled into a trance. At this point, the scrub woman imagines herself in an exciting adventure in which the hypnotist and the stage manager are battling for her hand in marriage. The premise proves to be nothing more than an excuse for a slapstick melee. At one point, the stage manager gets the hypnotist out of the way by pushing him into a trunk. The daydream almost turned out to be a nightmare for White. According to a news report, the production was halted when White became trapped inside the trunk and nearly suffocated.

Even in 1914, the plot of Sweedie and the Hypnotist was trite stuff. The janitor who leans against his broom and gets a faraway look in his eyes became a familiar image in comedy films. It was due to the influence of Mark Twain’s 1889 novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court that most daydreamers envisioned themselves in ancient times. In Hogan’s Aristocratic Dream (1915), a tramp (Charlie Murray) dreams that he is a nobleman in pre-revolutionary France. A film that distinctly combined the two daydreaming genres, the dawdling laborer and the time-traveling fantasist, was The Knight Watch (1929), in which a movie studio janitor (Arthur Lake) watches actors perform as merry knights on a medieval set and imagines himself as a brave knight.

A Mitty-type story formed the basis of Reaching for the Moon (1917). Alexis Brown (Douglas Fairbanks), a lowly clerk in a button factory, dreams that he is royal heir, but he finds at the film’s conclusion that the moon is out of his grasp. This is how the film ends according to the TCM website: “While dueling for his life. . . , Alexis falls over a cliff and awakens to discover that he has merely tumbled out of bed. Thus disabused of his fantasies, Alexis eagerly returns to his life in the button factory, proposes to Elsie Merrill, his down-to-earth sweetheart, and eventually finds happiness as a family man in a New Jersey suburb.”  The lesson is that fantasies are bad and the daydreamer is better off keeping his feet planted firmly on the ground.

Buster Keaton explored the world of daydreams in two films. In Daydreams (1922), Keaton goes to the big city to make his fortune. He writes vague letters to his girlfriend (Renée Adorée) to mislead her about his lack of success. Adorée, hopeful that her boyfriend will make money to marry her, imagines Keaton doing well as a surgeon, a stock broker, and a police captain. Keaton elaborated on the daydreaming idea in a feature-length film, Sherlock, Jr. (1924). This time, Keaton is able to discover his inner strength when he daydreams that he is a super sleuth. This more positive perspective on daydreams established a trend in films that still persists today.

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Harold Lloyd played daydreamers in his most popular films. In Girl Shy (1924), he imagines himself as a great seducer of women. The comedian used his character’s fantasies as an opportunity to spoof romantic melodramas of the day. A scene in which he seduces a vamp parodies a scene from Trifling Women (1922) and a scene in which he seduces a flapper parodies a scene from Flaming Youth (1923). The Freshman (1925) opens with Lloyd anxiously preparing to leave home for college. He wants, more than anything, to be popular on campus. So, he dresses up like a college hero pictured on a movie poster and performs college cheers while studying his image in his bedroom mirror. The Kid Brother (1927) includes a similar scene in which Lloyd daydreams in a mirror wearing his sheriff father’s badge and hat. This is a form of self-actualization. The idea is that you can be the person that you want to be if you first visualize yourself as that person. See it, be it. This continues Keaton’s idea that daydreams can mold a person and guide them onto a path of success.

Warner Brothers’ How Baxter Butted In (1925), which was based on a 1905 Broadway musical comedy by Owen Davis, was a definite forerunner to Mitty. Baxter, a young clerk in a newspaper office, always has fantasies in which he defends his sweetheart against the villainous office manager. It is the clerk’s dreams of bravery that eventually allows him to embrace true bravery. Nothing other than his daydreams facilitate his transformation from a timid failure to a brave hero.

How Baxter Butted In was remade as The Great Mr. Nobody in 1941. The story was changed a bit to suit the times. The timid Robert Smith (Eddie Albert), known to his friends as Dreamy, fantasizes about performing heroic deeds. Dreamy makes his living selling advertisements at a newspaper. The same imagination that produces Dreamy’s fantasies also aides him in producing compelling advertisements. But Dreamy has a boss who takes credit for his best ideas. The lack of credit for his ideas denies Dreamy rewards, whether a promotion or extra pay, and this disempowers him. A person cannot be disempowered unless they have power at the start. In the end, Dreamy finds his courage, takes action, and is finally recognized for his value. He is presented as the ultimate hero when, in the final scene, he joins the military.

Key plot details of The Great Mr. Nobody could be later found in the Mitty film. Like Dreamy, Mitty had gone into an appropriate profession. The same imagination that creates Mitty’s fantasies also creates popular adventure stories for his publisher. This is very different than Fairbanks working in a button factory. Unlike buttons, advertisements and adventure stories trade in fantasy and it takes a man with an affinity for fantasy to be successful in these fields. But Mitty shares another problem with Dreamy – his boss takes credit for his ideas.

James Thurber’s story, which ran a scant two and a half pages, had no need for character development, conflict resolution, or a villainous boss. Mitty is a henpecked middle-aged husband whose sole objective in the story is to stop at a grocery store to buy puppy biscuits. In a review of Ben Stiller’s new CGI-enhanced Mitty, Peter Debruge of Variety appropriately referred to Thurber’s story as “plotless source material.”  Still, many readers identified with Mitty, which made this Thurber’s most popular work. The scriptwriters, Ken Englund, Everett Freeman and Philip Rapp, had to find a way to expand the thin story for a feature film. Their basic ideas were sound. The writers established that, as the only son of an overbearing single mother, Mitty has been stunted in his development, which has made him passive in his relationships. He is unable to stand up to his mother, his boss, and his fiancé. He escapes into fantasy whenever he is humiliated or badgered. He seeks in his fantasies the respect and excitement that he is denied in his real life. In his fantasies, he imagines himself as a fighter pilot, a ship captain, a riverboat gambler, and a Western gunfighter.

So, there we have it, an ineffectual man uses daydreams as a way of escape from his dreary existence. Should we feel glad that this common man is able to uplift himself and subvert his suppressors through his imagination?  Or, should we feel sad that this man needs to retreat to a fantasy world to find triumph?  Is his escape into a daydream a form of victory or defeat?  Keaton and Lloyd already provided the answer to that question. Now, rather than the daydreams being a way of escape, they were a way to bring to the fore the innermost power and ambition that is straining to burst loose from a man. Mitty’s purpose in the enlarged story is to act on his fantasies and fulfill his potential.

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Unfortunately, Goldwyn’s Mitty goes wrong after the first act. To start, the film provides too much gloss and glamour for a comedy. Comedy is about sweaty brows, mussed hair, and torn britches. But this isn’t the only problem with the film. The story stops cold whenever Kaye performs one of his trademark patter-songs. These boldly silly numbers, including “Anatole of Paris” and “Symphony for Unstrung Tongue,” are unsuitable business for the shy Mitty and they are entirely irrelevant to the story. It might have worked better if the musical numbers were incorporated into the fantasy scenes. Thurber thought that the musical numbers, which he termed “git-gat-giddle songs,” were “deplorable.” He especially objected to the fact that, to make room for the songs, Goldwyn had to leave out fantasy scenes, including one scene in which Mitty imagines himself as a trial lawyer and another scene in which Mitty imagines himself being led before a firing squad. In the short story, Mitty’s fantasy hero comes to a dark end before a firing squad. Sylvia Fine, Kaye’s wife and manager, strongly objected to the trial and firing squad scenes and she proved to have more authority in the matter than Thurber.

Another glaring weakness of the film is its leading lady, Virginia Mayo. No matter how pretty Mayo looks in Technicolor, she contributes little to the film with her lifeless performance. She is so stilted at times that she could be a dress dummy from Goldwyn’s wardrobe department.

By far, the biggest problem with the film is that the daydream scenes simply don’t work. The film includes five daydream scenes, three of which turn up in the first twenty minutes. The film goes on for another hour and half, during which time the remaining two daydream sequences are dropped into the action at random times. It is as if the filmmakers lost interest in Mitty’s fantasies. It is immediately funny seeing Buster Keaton as a surgeon in Daydreams, but Kaye does not look out of place as a surgeon. The dream scenes lack a parodic dimension that the viewer should expect. The scenes lack humorous touches, furnishing no gags, or pratfalls, or funny lines. Kaye’s performance needed to be more campy as a way to give a wink to the audience. The one time that the scriptwriters allowed a fantasy scene to get funny was during Mitty’s efforts at surgery. Surely, they couldn’t have allowed the surgery to be serious. Surgeon Mitty is aided by a silly-looking machine that goes “ta-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa” and he completes the procedure using a sock stretcher, a sprinkling can, a cheese grater and floor wax.

After the first twenty minutes of the film, Mitty’s daydreams can easily recede as the pulp editor’s real life has become more dynamic than his daydreams. His dangerous encounters with the spies renders the fantasy segments unnecessary. The film would function well as a spy comedy if Thurber’s daydream scenes were jettisoned altogether. Still, Kaye gets to perform some great comic business as he struggles with inanimate objects (a chair and a water cooler) and makes a desperate effort to avoid being injured by deadly spies and a burly irate husband. The husband is justifiably upset by Mitty’s interest in a corset delivered to his wife. Little does the flustered husband know that the corset is the hiding place for a notebook with information that can thwart a Nazi plot.

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Animator Chuck Jones was more successful with the daydreaming premise when he depicted an imaginative boy named Ralph Phillips in From A to ZZZ (1953) and Boyhood Daze (1957). The daydreamer protagonist has continued to be used effectively in films, including Billy Liar (1963) and Brazil (1985). Brazil was described by its director, Terry Gilliam, as “Walter Mitty Meets Franz Kafka.”  The premise was strong enough to sustain a number of television series, including The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin (1976–1979), The Singing Detective (1986) and Dream On (1990-1996). Snoopy of the Peanuts comic strip was no doubt in Mitty territory whenever he imagined himself to be a World War I flying ace.

The latest version of Mitty is meant to be smarter and less silly than its predecessor. I haven’t seen this remake yet, but I have read a few reviews. Debruge wrote, “Rather than channeling James Thurber’s satirical tone, [Ben] Stiller plays it mostly earnest, spinning what feels like a feature-length ‘Just Do It’ ad for restless middle-aged auds [audiences], on whom its reasonably commercial prospects depend.”  In other words, it takes the idea that fantasies are motivational to an extreme.

Daydreams can provide us with a dress rehearsal for our lives and, at the same time, they can allow us to release deeply creative ideas. Films that celebrate daydreams are worthwhile. I just wish that Goldwyn’s Mitty had focused more on that idea.

Anthony Balducci has written three books on silent film comedy. He is presently at work on a book called I Won’t Grow Up!: What Comedy Films Have to Teach Us About Maturity, Responsibility and Masculinity. He has been a devoted blogger since 2000. You can visit his current blog at http://anthonybalducci.blogspot.com/.